‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ is a Powerful, Beautiful Picture of the Ugliness of War

By John Zmirak Published on February 14, 2019

Learning about the First World War is rarely a pleasure. In fact, I went to see this documentary about the war expecting to be miserable. I’d read rave reviews of the film, but actually dreaded seeing it. I went from a sense of piety toward the 8 million men who died in a pointless and futile war. (This leaves out the 50 million who died from the postwar influenza epidemic, which the war spread and possibly caused.) Repeatedly through the film I found myself tearfully praying for the repose of the soldier’s souls. 

A War About Nothing

More than futile, the First World War was actually counterproductive. Only one of the powers that entered it (France) got out of it what it wanted. The anti-religious Third Republic, which ten years before the war was persecuting the Church (seizing monasteries, closing schools, and driving elderly monks and nuns out of their native country) got back Alsace-Lorraine. That was territory which Louis XIV had stolen from the Holy Roman Empire, and the revived German Empire had taken back in 1870. Now France regained those ethnically mixed provinces, at a cost of 1.15 million dead. This in a nation whose birth rate had been plummeting for decades. The French were so devastated by their losses in this war that they lacked the spirit to stop the rise of Hitler, and would end up with their country conquered and occupied just 21 years later.

The Elites, Diseased

Britain (the focus of this documentary) lost 744,000 native and colonial soldiers. Countless young men from Oxford and Cambridge volunteered, admirably joining ordinary working class boys in the slaughter. (Both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis served in the trenches.) The scars the war left on England’s elite ran deep. A whole generation was marked by the pointless, dehumanizing wrack of life in the trenches. For many, the cause of patriotism was tainted forever, along with the Christianity fouled by clerics who called the war a crusade. Here’s one infamous example, reported by Adam Hochschild:

Ferocity about the war could be heard everywhere. “Kill Germans! Kill them!” raged one clergyman in a 1915 sermon. “… Not for the sake of killing, but to save the world. … Kill the good as well as the bad. … Kill the young men as well as the old. … Kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends who crucified the Canadian sergeant [a story then circulating]. … I look upon it as a war for purity. I look upon everybody who dies in it as a martyr.” The speaker was Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the Anglican bishop of London.

Planting the Seeds of Nihilism

Returning from the “war to end all wars” which accomplished almost nothing, many intelligent Englishmen succumbed to the soul poison of cynicism. They bought into radical pacifism, or the Bolshevik Utopia. They developed such a terror of war that they appeased Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile the Empire they’d fought the war to serve went almost bankrupt. The cost and waste of the First World War drained Britain of what it needed to hold onto that Empire. Almost all of it would disappear by 1948.

German veterans of the war took back a different lesson. Their military leaders and patriotic demagogues told them that Germany was winning in 1918. It was betrayed by socialist politicians and conspiratorial Jews who “stabbed Germany in the back.” This potent historical myth fueled the rise of Hitler, to lead the nation into another, far more destructive war.

A Kind of Imperial Suicide Pact

The German, Russian, and Austrian empires that entered the war to save their prestige each perished in the conflict. Russia simply collapsed, and fell into the clutches of savage, gnostic fanatics led by V.I. Lenin. Within 15 years of the war’s end, the Communists would impose a terror famine on Ukraine that claimed more dead than had perished in the war.

The United States fought overseas. We lost “only” 53,000 men. But the price we paid far exceeded that, if you factor in lost freedom. President Woodrow Wilson, elected on a peace platform, soon schemed to get America into the war. He used it as the pretext to impose vast federal dictates on the whole U.S. economy. To imprison American citizens for speaking against the war. The State grows in every war to meet the state of emergency, but it never quite shrinks back to the size it was before. Wilson, who loathed our Constitution and craved a Progressive presidential quasi-dictatorship, achieved much of what he wanted under the fog of war.

Conservatives should remember all of this. The virtues that make military service possible are mostly those common to the Right. Things like patriotism, self-sacrifice, obedience to legitimate authorities, and a refusal of servile surrender. But the outcome of most wars is the chaos, collectivism, radical change and destruction of tradition, family, and faith that serve the left.

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The Voices of the Soldiers

So attending a World War I film, I expected to hear antiwar poems like Wilfrid Owen’s savage classic “Dulce et Decorum Est.” (From Horace’s old saw, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”) Here’s a sample stanza, speaking of a young soldier who’d been gassed.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

But Peter Jackson did something quite different. They Shall Not Grow Old is hardly a jingoistic paeon to war. It amply displays the boredom, terror, squalor, pestiferous insects and ravenous rats of the trenches. We hear in the voices of veterans, recorded decades ago, what it’s like to cower under hour-long artillery barrages. To watch your friends, your officers, and 90 percent of your company mowed down by machine fire in an ill-conceived bayonet charge. To return after the war to an uncomprehending public, which far from showing gratitude posted “Veterans Need Not Apply” signs at factories.

Ordinary Englishmen, Scots, Welsh and Irish Men

However, Jackson’s picture of the war rests on ordinary working class soldiers and their stories. All the voiceover consists of their recollections, in their own voices. All the footage? Film shot by the British Army and stockpiled in the Imperial War Museums. Those museums came to Jackson and asked him to revitalize and re-present the footage for the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. And Jackson certainly managed that. The films, which most of us have seen in jerky, grainy, black and white, he gloriously colorized and smoothed out with high-tech equipment. Instead of gray ghosts, the soldiers shine forth luminously as men like you and me. The decades melt away, and we can see ourselves in these men in the trenches.

Jackson’s picture of the war rests on ordinary working class soldiers and their stories. All the voiceover consists up of their recollections, in their own voices. All the footage? Film that shot by the British Army and stockpiled in the Imperial War Museums. Those museums came to Jackson and asked him to revitalize and re-present the footage for the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. And Jackson certainly managed that.

Their voices do not reflect the cynicism, bitterness, and nihilism which the war provoked among many Oxford or Cambridge boys who survived it. We hear in these mens’ words the simple patriotism, love for their comrades, and naïve excitement at leaving their narrow hometowns. All of that, right alongside the memories of terror. We even hear them speak with respect and compassion of the Germans. And see them sharing cigarettes with half-starved German prisoners.

These British men give us a glimpse of the Christian civilization which existed before the Great War, which that savage strife did so much to hollow out and destroy.

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