John Sifton

After a full century, direct memories of the First World War - a largely purposeless conflict that wasted lives with unthinkable profligacy - have receded, yet evidence of the war lingers. In rural France or Belgium today, you can still find trenches, overgrown and eroded yet unambiguously there. In the fields and forests near Verdun or east of Reims, farmers still unearth bones, shell casings, parts of gun barrels. The earth itself, ground up by shell fire for four long years, shows the scars: even today, parts of the Somme River valley are chalky white, nitrated by the high explosives landing day after day during the four month Battle of the Somme, the deadliest and most protracted battle in history.

Many of us still have close connections to the men who fought on those battlefields or lived through those seasons of wartime want, not only combatants from Europe or North America but around the world, from Algeria to India to the Caribbean. Our older relatives may have comforted grieving mothers or veteran fathers, or helped legless or armless veterans open a door or board a bus. One of my grandfathers, Paul Field Sifton, served in the American Expeditionary Forces in France at the close of the war; he was exposed to mustard gas and ultimately lost a lung. My stepfather, who spent the first decade of his life in interwar Germany, remembers the sight of legless or armless veterans, and his father, a doctor, served in a German regiment on the Western Front. I have met many people—in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa—who have relatives who participated in or witnessed the war, and it no longer surprises me how many of them can offer family anecdotes about some aspect of the conflict.

About five years ago, while working on a book project, I became intrigued by my grandfather’s war experience and sought to learn more about it. I knew that after the war he had gone on to be a journalist, playwright, and labor organizer, but he had died before I was born and I knew nothing about his service. The research, however, proved difficult. His wife, my grandmother, had died when I was only seven years old. My late father, Charles Sifton, a taciturn man, only revealed that his father had been taciturn, too. “Check the Library of Congress,” he told me several years ago. “His papers are there.” 

Among my grandfather’s papers, I only learned his unit, not where he served, and a single letter from the front, presumably subject to censors, only indicated as his location “Somewhere in France.” The Department of Veterans Affairs later told me his military records had long been lost to posterity, with millions of others, in a major fire in a records unit in the 1970s. 

The one typed letter from the front, to “Uncle Elmer,” a family friend, was a little pretentious. I don’t know what I had expected; perhaps something more profound, wisdom from the front, but instead I had the distinct sense of reading a clever young man, too cute by half. 

Dear Uncle Elmer,

I’ll omit all the trite apologies for not writing, you know that such excuses are skimmed over by the recipient with the qualifying admission – “It may be so”.

I don’t believe I ever told you my reasons for enlisting; here they are, tabulated:

       REASON                       PERCENT

       Patriotism                          33 
      Color (for writing later...)    20
       Adventure                          25
        Vanity                               10
        Pride                                  5
        Fear                                   7      

The last two elements may seem cryptic at first shot. As for the last one – it takes courage for a youth of my fitness for military service to walk down a Chicago street a civilian – you understand?

Now that I’m in the Service and a member of the First Expedition I wish my percentage of patriotism had been larger. When one sees the singleness of purpose everywhere exhibited by the people of France one wishes that he might share it – wholly. . . . All France honors every American by assuming that they hold an Ideal as the raison d’etre for engaging in this war. 

I wonder if you people back home, you who see the wheels go round realize this; if you do not now there is a rude awakening coming when American mothers begin wearing black [and] go to the stores, shops and churches with pale compressed lips and that dumb questioning pain [in] the back of their eyes. 

I forget – I am not pounding the typewriter, turning out copy for a penny sheet. I am writing a “home letter” – according to the story concocters a happy, devil-may-care message from one who goes to war as a spaniel takes to water in the dog-days. 

The truth is – I can’t write such a letter; it’s all serious business to me I’m afraid – not of the dying part but of running away at the wrong time. I shall have to take myself by the nape of the neck when the time comes – I know that. However, I was aware of all this when I “signed up” last April and so there are no regrets…

Ultimately, I cross-referenced what I learned of his unit with historical treatments of the American Expeditionary Forces and where they had engaged. It was tough work, plowing through hundreds of pages of obscure Army reports, but I finally located his deployment in the woods and hills due east of Paris. From the records, it appears that his unit had first been stationed at Arras, and later near Verdun, on what is called the St. Mihiel salient, and engaged in a nasty set of battles on the front line east of St. Mihiel near the small French towns of Flirey and Beaumont. The fighting was particularly intense in late February and March 1918, when the German army launched a major last-ditch assault on Allied forces across the Western Front. Both the Germans and the American and French forces in the area were armed with gas shells - mustard, phosgene, cyanogen chloride, and a newer German gas called diphenylchloroarsine, an agent formed from arsenic. Essentially, the rival units were engaged in a set of artillery gas shell duels, both sides lobbing tens of thousands of shells at the other, for weeks. The Americans had masks and protective suits but were not well-trained in their use. They were not a complete defense in any case, and were not worn at all hours of the day.

In the summer of 2011, I visited the area where my grandfather had been deployed, now farms and scenic countryside. I walked through a cool green forest where his unit had been posted. I strolled through fields, across the no-man’s-land up to the German side, and back down to the Allied side. I visited the local cemetery, where thousands of Americans were buried along with French—and even some Algerian trailleurs, or skirmishers, Arab troops sent over the top to raid German trenches in nighttime, buried not under white crosses but elegant arched tombstones engraved with a crescent and Arabic script: “This is the tomb of the respected—” and then in French “Ali Ben Mohamed Ben Faleh, 2nd class, 4th Regiment, Marche de Tirailleurs.” A nearby ossuary was marked with a simple marble slab: Ici Reposent 1721 Soldats Inconnus, 1,721 unknown soldiers. That many, in a small cemetery on a forgotten, little-visited part of the front line. 

It was difficult to imagine the landscape it must have been so many years before, although remnants of trenches lay all around, and the remains of the town’s original church, intentionally left as a reminder of the conflict, now ivy-covered walls and a few stone window arches. I walked through the trenches, now overgrown ditches; the verdant countryside itself was slowly burying the remnants of the violent past. Lying down in one trench near a field, I tried to picture the sheer hellishness of the conflict - artillery and gunfire, raiding parties with long bayonets, gas - but the flowers and butterflies made it impossible.

*          *          *

How could it have happened? It was a relatively quick slide: Archduke Ferdinand, heir apparent to the throne of crumbling Austria-Hungary, was shot dead by a Serb nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The Austro-Hungarian leadership was outraged by the murder, which seemed to manifest what they greatly feared—a revolution by the South Slavs in the empire, supported by their traditional backer, Russia. For a month, diplomatic posturing in St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, London, only raised the tension, with the saber-rattling of troop mobilizations, ultimatums, dithering, belated telegraphs and miscommunications. In the face of impending disaster, Europe’s political leaders seemed determined to preserve their impassive aplomb.

Austria-Hungary’s July 28 declaration of war against Serbia was the first in a long line of dominos. The gentlemanly diplomacy of the day was supposed to prevent conflicts, but in 1914 it all but began them: piles of bilateral agreements in which nations promised to aid each other in conflict served like dry paper to fuel the conflagration. The armies of Europe’s great powers, having spent years in preparing and planning for war as a contingency, seemed to have developed an appetite for conflict; at any rate, the generals pushed civilian leaders toward confrontation in the name of preemption. War in Serbia tripped the wire of tension between Austria-Hungary’s powerful ally, Germany, and its hostile neighbors, Russia and France; subsequently Britain, later Italy and ultimately the United States were pulled in. And war was to prove popular: many in Germany, France, and Britain were excited by the prospect of proving their nation’s greatness and their own romantic valor, and rushed off to recruitment centers. Austro-Hungarian forces suffered surprising initial setbacks in the Balkans, while the German army attempted a knock-out blow to France via neutral Belgium, hoping to pacify France before addressing Russia in the east - a battle plan that German generals had been formulating for years. The effort stalled in less than a month; at the Battle of the Marne in September, French armies counter-attacked, aided by British forces coming to the aid of their allies Belgium and France. The Germans dug in east of Paris, so the Allies attempted to encircle them from the north, which then brought both forces north in a series of flanking motions, out-flanking, counter-flanking, each army racing to move north around the other, but failing, then digging in and trying again. The battle tumbled into Flanders by October. As Stephen O’Shea wrote in Back to the Front, an historical travelogue of the Western Front: “It came to be known as ‘the Race to the Sea,’ but was more akin to a zipper closing.” By the close of 1914, a line of trenches and fortifications lay from the North Sea to the Swiss border. So it remained, more or less, for four years. 

It was not a quiet equilibrium, like two weights lying against each other, more like two machines crunching into one another, scraping and banging, smashing and shredding everything between. Both sides—but especially the Allies—repeatedly tried to break the stalemate by launching massive artillery and infantry assaults, pushing the line one way or another, east or west, only to be ground to a halt by enemy machine gunners and mortar batteries. The major battles, sometimes leading to tens of thousands of casualties in a day, often yielded only a few miles of captured territory, sometimes only a few hundred yards. The Eastern Front, where Russian forces faced Germany and Austria, formed a set of more diverse and dynamic lines, in the Carpathians and though northern Poland, and at Italy’s Balkan borders and at greater Turkey, although the general situation was often stalemated. There were also minor battles in Africa and Asia, and heavy naval engagements especially in the war’s first two years. There was even a gun battle on the Arizona-Mexico border in 1918 involving German saboteurs. But the main action, in Europe, was the epicenter of the horror: soldiers on both fronts terrorized by screaming shells, explosions, machine gun fire, snipers and barbed wire. 

It was extraordinary butchery. Never before had humans fought in such numbers and inflicted violence with such intensity. Never before had technology been harnessed to such negative effects. Modern weapons had debuted in Crimea in the 1850s and were used in the American Civil War of the 1860s, in the Franco-German War the next decade, and the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, but the First World War marked a newer chapter in the history of warfare: international industrial combat. Not only were the weapons mass-produced in factories with all the vaunted speed and efficiency of industrialized processes, but the battlefield itself became a factory, a place of industrialized killing by machine gun and artillery. In the last two years of the war, German forces released chemical gas that often wafted downwind into enemy positions, or artillery-launched canisters from both sides were delivered in both directions. During engagements in damp areas like some of the battlefields in Belgium, relentless shelling in conjunction with rain turned the ground into liquid mud, and sometimes wounded troops literally drowned in it. Many of those who survived succumbed to fever, infection or cold. 

“Many of those who died in battle could never be laid to rest,” wrote John Keegan in The First World War. “Their bodies had been blown to pieces by shellfire and the fragments scattered beyond recognition. Many other bodies could not be recovered during the fighting and were then lost to view, entombed in crumbled shell holes or collapsed trenches or decomposing into the broken soil battle left behind.” Of the roughly million British war dead by 1918, only half were ever identified; a majority of the 1.7 million French war dead were either never found or were buried in mass graves. In many parts of France, instead of graveyards there are large ossuaries, vaults of human bones collected from the battlefields. And memorialization of such losses was important: in France, casualties were so extensive that the near totality of the population knew or was related to someone who was killed in the war.

*          *          *

It is not clear when the gas ultimately got my grandfather. It could have been during a set of German onslaughts on the western front around February 26, 1918, or during a major German advance on March 21, which took place along the entire front line. Alternatively, it might have been in September 1918, close to the very end of the war, when we know his unit was deployed in a major attack at nearby St. Mihiel, one of the first large-scale American advances of the war.

A nighttime German barrage on Allied trenches near Ypres (via Smithsonian) 

Gas was a major component of all these late battles. The young Adolf Hitler, on the other side, suffered a gas attack by British forces in October 1918, a month before the end of the war. Hitler, an enlisted soldier like my grandfather and about the same age, was stationed to the northwest, outside Ypres, in Belgium. (Some historians suggest that the experience affected Hitler’s later decision during the Second World War to order his forces not to utilize chemical weapons, even on the Eastern Front in circumstances where there was little reason to fear retaliation.)

The British poet Wilfred Owen was killed around the same time, a mere week before the war’s end. He had composed the famous lines of his poem Dulce et Decorum est only a few months earlier:

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. . . .

So the war ended. The added pressure of the American forces, and the crumbling of Germany’s armies, brought the conflict to its stumbling close. My grandfather, along with other casualties, and Hitler too, were all recovering in military hospitals when the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, at 11 am: the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. My grandfather was probably not in a mood to celebrate. He had developed tuberculosis, a common effect of lung damage due to gas, and had to have a lung removed, surgery being the main treatment for the disease at the time. It is unclear if the surgery was done in Europe or in the United States. His papers show that he was discharged from a military hospital in Denver in April 1919. I was told he had lung problems his whole life. He died in 1971 of complications associated with emphysema. My brother described to me a grumpy man, tethered to oxygen tanks in his final days, gasping for breath.

*          *          *

I never found any descriptive documents about my grandfather’s war service or his suffering from exposure to mustard gas. But I did find among his papers a typewritten manuscript of an unpublished novel completed in 1922, entitled More Stripes Than Stars, dealing with a American veteran named Collins, returning from France in 1918, just before the war’s end. The novel appears to be largely autobiographical. The action largely takes place in the Midwest but with several sections drawn from my grandfather’s war experience. Collins, my grandfather writes, is present when American forces fired their very first artillery at the German line in October 1917. (My grandfather’s unit was in fact responsible for the first U.S. artillery round fired in the war that month, near Nancy.) Then he “went up the second time in the St. Mihiel sector” (precisely where his unit was redeployed in early 1918) and was “under gas five days, gassed with chlorine and a little mustard. . . .” At a later point Collins has been “gassed under fire” and quips: “Under fire, hell. He was gassed in a dugout at a telephone switchboard.” This matches the type of work my grandfather had in his artillery unit: he was assigned to the headquarters company, which among other things is responsible for communications between units, including the operations of front telephone lines and maintaining message runners. 

The book speaks of the war in only brief allusions, but one chapter recalls: 

. . . the accolade of gun-pit mud, tooth-aches , dysentery, the insane shriek of shells and the constant Dantesque panorama of fields of trenches and barbed wire, but above all of mud, mud that froze feet into stirrups, that warped boots until they had to be hammered on to itching, frosted feet in the morning, the accolade of mud. . . . Mud that only ideals, poetry, a pocket picture of a girl and deliberate mindlessness could make endurable.

At another point, when Collins is asked to talk to a home audience about the war, he ponders what to say:

He could tell them that the soldiers in France were enduring hardships, losing their health, dying or being maimed because of patriotism, because they were engaged in a war to end war (the phrase was potent then), because they were true American – but private doubts would weaken his declarations. True enough, they were enduring, suffering, dying for all those things, but that wasn’t all of the picture. He left out the carefree life, the beer, wine, champagne in the little cafes, the equality that obtained in the barns and stables where they were billeted, the sport of stealing grain and hay for one’s horse, the comradeship one felt in riding along a shell-raked road in the darkness, the downright cursing and straight talk, the gambling on pay day, the trips to neighboring towns, the tears of peasant women and children when they left for the Line the second time.

A little overwrought, perhaps, but for me, endearingly so. Reading it and typing out the lines to record them, I regretted I never met the man.

*          *          *

When I first began studying the First World War, I was drawn by the historic significance of the conflict. Later, I became interested in the war’s physical characteristics, the literal weight of its unprecedented violence. Massive armies had been created before, but never before in such numbers. The efforts were staggering: so many trains, so many horses, and all the fodder. Never before had so much materiel been assembled, so many tons of steel and lead and bombs: the warring nations ultimately expended millions of pounds of high explosives. The steel I could understand—iron ore is not a particularly rare commodity—but where did all the explosive material come from, especially for Germany, under naval siege? Where had they obtained all that nitrated carbon? 

Several years before the outbreak of the war, in 1909, one of Germany’s top chemists, Fritz Haber, had perfected a process for synthesizing ammonium nitrate from ordinary air,8 perfected in industrial practice with the help of a fellow chemist named Carl Bosch and later called the Haber-Bosch Process. Nitrates’ most common use is as an agricultural fertilizer, so the discovery of the process was rightly heralded as a major scientific breakthrough. Artificial fertilizer ended farmers’ dependence on compost and animal waste. Once the war began, however, the process was re-engineered to address the shortages of saltpeter. Haber himself, as a leader in the Germany scientific community, threw himself into the war effort, working with the German chemical industries to retool factories and keep Germany’s military well supplied. Waves of Allied troops, advancing on foot toward German lines, were gunned down by German machine gunners spraying bullets propelled by nitrates made by the Haber-Bosch Process. Ultimately Germany’s forces maintained two fronts, under embargo but well supplied with explosives, for four years. 

A Swedish postal stamp bearing the image of Fritz Haber.

The legacy of Haber’s discovery had a complex double nature. The process was a boon to agriculture, and made possible a population boom during the 20th century that otherwise would have been agriculturally unsustainable. (The earth’s current population is still not sustainable without artificial fertilizers; scientists have estimated that half the nitrogen in the typical human body is the product of the Haber-Bosch process.) For his discovery Haber won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry – in 1918, the year the war ended. But Haber’s discovery had also prolonged the war: Germany likely would have had to capitulate earlier had it run out of saltpeter and fertilizer. Some might argue that the prolonging of the war led to millions of excess deaths. The Nobel Committee, which awarded no peace prizes for the years during the war, except in 1917 to the Red Cross, didn’t make such a connection. 

Haber’s stature was also tarnished by the fact that he helped to develop processes for the delivery of poison gases, including the gas that was used on my grandfather. Haber worked throughout the war to make deployable forms of mustard gas, chlorine, phosgene, and cyanogen chloride (a cyanide-based gas that was later developed into Zyklon, the fumigation agent used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz and other camps). Haber later argued that his efforts had been motivated by a humanitarian desire to achieve a breakthrough in the war and end it sooner.

A German gas attack. Changing winds could prove deadly, gas at times blowing back on one's own troops.

As my grandfather experienced, the effects of chemical weapons, including the widely-used mustard gas, are awful. If victims do not die – slowly, with intense burning pain to their skin, throat, lungs, eyes, and nasal passages – they are sentenced to a life of weakened lungs, skin problems, and disease caused by weakened immunities. Chemical weapons shells were already illegal under international treaty when Haber began his work, and many people – including Haber’s friend Albert Einstein – were dismayed that he had lent his scientific mind to their development. Indeed, Haber and other German scientists feared extradition to France in the 1920s, pursuant to terms in treaties ending the war, but nothing came of it. Haber’s wife, a chemist herself, was also disturbed by his work. She shot herself one night in 1915, after a fight with Haber on his return from a visit to the front, where he had observed the first deployment of his chemical weapons against British forces, in the second battle of Ypres in Belgium. 

Haber seems to have suffered karmic payback. Unlike his friend Einstein, who had begun to cut ties with Germany after the war was over, he underestimated the growing menace of rightwing German nationalism in the 1920s and was broken by Hitler’s rise. Although Haber had been a robust supporter of German military power, under Nazi-promulgated laws he was a Jew, and there was no place for him in the Third Reich. He died in exile in Basel in 1934. There is something particularly ironic about Haber’s legacy and the context in which his discovery took place: massive industrialized combat made possible by the earnest efforts of a bourgeois German scientist who wanted to solve agricultural problems with modern chemistry.

Haber fit the part. A fin-de-siècle German through-and-through, Haber loved the work and the fame it brought him, and he supported his industrious modern nation. He threw his efforts into research to improve and advance technology, to be a good and useful member of the scientific community. He was striving to fulfill the European bourgeois dream of the era, still blossoming in 1914: a marvelous new world of electric lights in cafes, luxurious spa clinics in the Alps, love notes by telegraph, waltzes on the phonograph, and peace and prosperity guarded by cultured statesmen with names like Bismarck, Paléologue, Gascoyne-Cecil and Asquith. That this bourgeois dream yielded so much death captures the very essence of the ironic, absurd horror of the First World War. The modern world was hoist with its own petard. The juxtaposition is well summed up in a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night, when the protagonist Dick Diver visits the front with friends in the 1920s: 

This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time…This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes…You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers…This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne [and] country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle – there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle…All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love.

*          *          *

Ideas like glory and purpose could only wither in a war like this. Amidst the absurdity of the trenches and deadlock, of machine guns mowing men down by the thousands, chemical weapons with their ignoble effects, it was all but impossible to conceive of romantic valor or heroism. Of course, the conflict featured incidents of courage, brave soldiers killing enemies, sacrificing their own lives, rescuing comrades. But combat could be neither glorious nor poignant, and most diarists and novelists of the war, especially in hindsight, were not dreamy about it. 

The veteran Frederic Manning, in his novel The Middle Parts of Fortune, wrote: “Men had reverted to a more primitive stage in their development, and had become nocturnal beasts of prey, hunting each other in packs.” The poet W.B. Yeats wrote of “weasels fighting in a hole.” The historians Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, in a masterwork on the war, 14—18: Understanding the Great War, described the war’s “culture of brutality and brutalization,” not merely in battles but also with respect to how armies treated their own soldiers (many of who were merely mobilized civilians), and in the case of Germany how soldiers treated civilians in occupied territories. It was in France and Belgium in 1914 that Europe’s first “concentration camps” were built, areas in which to concentrate the population under the military’s control – techniques the Germans borrowed from the British, who had begun using them in their African colonies. The Germans also carried out reprisals for attacks against civilians—burning down villages, shooting civilians – and Turkish forces deported and force-marched Armenians out of their homes in what came to be known as the Armenian genocide. Many 21st century issues of legal conduct during war and insurgency – drone strikes and other extrajudicial killings, the rules of military occupation, detentions at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and Bagram, legal categories between combatants and civilians – all of these issues had historical precursors during the First World War. It was a time of fear, anger, victimhood, and outrage, and in many places heated emotions led to unfettered brutality. Journalists and writers whipped themselves into a frenzy describing the inhumanity of the enemy and justifying their own fury and vengeance, traits not so commonly evoked in past European wars. Frédéric Duval, a Paris archivist, a chartiste, wrote the following, after Rheims cathedral was hit by German artillery in 1917:

Rheims cathedral is burning. I am choked with grief. . . . The people are infused with fifteen centuries of faith and love and they feel struck at the heart. I am pleased by their anger. They release a volley of curses. Blessed fury! So the race is not dead! It vibrates with intensity, recognizes itself and finds its destiny again. Faith against faith, thought against thought, race against race. . . . Our hatred will watch over this rubble. Sacred ruins are needed to attest to the [enemies’] barbarism, legitimize the victory, bring about the resurrection.

Violence became so “commonplace,” Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker wrote, that “its range grew out of all proportion.” By the time the war was over, it wasn’t simply the idea of progress that was dead. The very idea of morality was in doubt. Michael Wood, a keen observer of the era’s literature, has written that even “general moral disaster” is not precise enough—something even worse had occurred:

When Yeats says [in his 1919 poem The Second Coming] that “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” he does not mean mere disorder. He means what is perceived as a new degree of uncontrollable violence and a new realm of impunity.

Despite the brutality, however, forms of artificial romance and heroism had to prevail if for no other reason than to satisfy general morale. Occurring in a world of wire dispatches, telegraph, and daily newspapers, such a brutal war required a cover-up to prevent popular dissent, to conceal the truth of the churning nature of battles. And citizens and even soldiers obliged. In a top down and bottom up propaganda effort, both government and citizenry engaged in patriotic truth-hiding. Newspapers and radio overflowed with false accounts of combat, covering up realities and the soldiers’ growing cynicism. 

The author's image of the ruins of the Flirey church today. 

O’Shea describes the First World War as “the mother of all bullshit,” a cultural moment of millions of falsehoods, “spun deliberately by the military and the governments and their press, or created by fantasts sitting idly in their trenches. The First World War can be said to have ushered in the industrialization of the lie.” O’Shea wrote of how newspapers in Germany reported on French plots to poison drinking water, while “French papers explained how German corpses smelled fouler than French ones. Trench life was lauded as a walk in the country – French illustrators took pains to show the billiard rooms and refreshment centers supposedly built into every dugout.” Scientists in Paris delivered papers at the Academy of Medicine explaining the bad body odor of German troops: a paper by a Dr. Bérillon, for instance, entitled “Fetid Bromidrosis of the German Race,” explained that the enemy’s evilness was connected with excess “vasomotor reactions”; their “exaggerated glandular activity” causing “malodorous secretions.” There were even rumors of the supernatural—many in France accepted as fact that heavenly angels had appeared during a battle at Mons in 1914 and struck down German troops; throughout the war reports circulated of dead Germans found with arrow wounds. Families of soldiers in France, Germany, and England routinely took part in séances in which they claimed to speak with their lost relatives. O’Shea quotes Louis Ferdinand Céline:

People lied fiercely and beyond belief, ridiculously, beyond the limits of absurdity: lies in the papers, lies on the hoardings, lies on foot, on horseback and on wheels. Everybody was doing it, trying to see who could produce a more fantastic lie than his neighbor. There was soon no truth left in town.

Some of this may seem familiar in today’s propaganda age, but discordant falsehoods at this level were new at the time. The war in many ways began the age of public relations and set the mark for how facts and information would be spun, and are spun today. It was not Orwellian thought control, only patriotism and fervor at work; for instance at the start of the war with outpourings of enthusiasm from artists and intellectuals and “pals’ battalions” of friends or work colleagues enlisting together. Later, after the massive numbers of deaths at Somme, Verdun, Gallipoli, it was a spin associated more with victimhood and sacrifice. Paul Fussell, who in The Great War and Modern Memory called the First World War “more ironic than any [war] before or since,” and a “hideous embarrassment to the prevailing Meliorist myth which had dominated the public consciousness for a century,” outlined how, in early 1916, after massive British losses the year before, the country’s Poet Laureate. Robert Bridges, issued an “anthology of uplifting literary passages of a neo-Platonic tendency titled The Spirit of Man.” Only after the war did European culture more honestly address the war’s tragedy and sheer insanity.

By then the damage was complete. Europe was broken. Some historians suggest an almost seamless transition from the brutalization process of 1914-1918 and the rest of the 20th century’s worst events. George Mosse, an authority on fascism and nationalism, typically discusses the cultures of the first and second wars together, a single era of brutalization, a general “turn of politics into war pursued by other means”. A phrase of Christopher Hitchens’ is perhaps apt: “It’s been downhill all the way for civilization since August 1914.”

Post-war treaties signed in Paris in 1919 set new boundaries for states and created the League of Nations, which in turn set the perimeters of areas in the Middle East and Africa once within the Ottoman Empire but now mandated to the Allies - lines which became, more or less, the modern borders of Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, as well as parts of Palestine and Israel. German colonies in Africa were divided, too: for instance, present day Rwanda and Burundi were ceded to Belgium, Togo to France, much of Namibia and Tanzania to Britain, and parts of present Mozambique to Portugal. The divisions created by these new borders often aggravated other tensions, many of which are still in the headlines today - especially in the Middle East. Tensions between Shi’a and Sunni, between Hashemites and the House of Saud, the apparent impossibility of a unified Iraq; the unresolved status of Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran - all of this grew directly out of events in the First World War and its aftermath. Consider also al-Qaeda’s bitterness over the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, highlighted by Osama bin Laden in the weeks after the September 11th attacks: “What America is tasting now,” he said on October 7, 2001, “is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for scores of years. Our [Islamic] nation has been tasting this humiliation and this degradation for more than 80 years. [Now,] when the sword comes down on America, after 80 years, hypocrisy rears its ugly head.” He reiterated the point in his next statement on November 3: “Following World War I, which ended more than 83 years ago, the whole Islamic world fell under the crusader banner...These battles cannot be viewed in any case whatsoever as isolated battles, but rather, as part of a chain of the long, fierce, and ugly crusader war.”

*          *          *

Some months after I found my grandfather’s unpublished papers, I turned to my stepfather, Fritz Stern, to engage with him about the war’s history. I figured that Fritz, an eminent historian of European history at Columbia University, would have some useful insights about the German side of the front and about Haber’s role in the war effort. I understood that his book Einstein’s German World contained a chapter about Haber and his friendship with Albert Einstein, including their relationship at the time of the war.

Fritz’s father, Rudolf, who had served in the German army during the conflict, was on the Jules Verne end of things: he served in a balloon regiment. His commanders sent him hundreds of feet into the air to make observations and report them via a field telephone, the wire running from his little basket down to the ground. Fritz showed me a photograph of him and his comrades on the front line: German officers posing in their dark, buttoned-up uniforms, and in the background a stubby black balloon with a German Iron Cross painted on the side, like a contraption from the Adventures of Baron Münchhausen. I laughed.

“No, it was serious business,” Fritz said. “Sometimes they were shot down, which was not a nice business. A quick drop. It never happened to my father, but it did to others.”

At this point I had not yet read Fritz’s book with its chapter on Haber and Einstein. I told Fritz about my reading on explosives. Fritz was delighted when I brought up Haber’s name, but I was in for a shock. 

“John,” said Fritz, stopping me with a smile as I began to ask questions. “I am named after Fritz Haber. He was a friend of my parents. He was my godfather.”

I was stunned. “That’s amazing,” I said. “I didn’t realize.” 

This was Haber we were talking about, my erstwhile Dr. Frankenstein. The war criminal who had developed the poison gas used on my grandfather. Here was Fritz – my mother’s amicable husband, a liberal, a humanist and an intellectual – named after the man who developed the chemical weapons used on my grandfather and many thousands more. I didn’t know what to say. I remembered that somewhere I had heard about Haber knowing his parents, but I’d forgotten the details. 

Fritz went to get a copy of his book, as I grappled with this new development. He returned and I began to read through the pages in amazement. I found a section with a letter to Fritz’s father from Haber, sent a few weeks before Haber’s death, written with full appreciation for the monstrousness of what Germany had become, yet a tinge of hope for the next generation, in other words, Fritz and me: “[Y]our children and their children will profit more from the sufferings of their parents than we profited from the well-being of our own forebears.”

Fritz seemed surprised that I hadn’t yet known these historical details. 

“This is crazy,” I said.

Later I wandered toward the front hallway of the apartment. I recalled that on the wall there with many other family photographs was one with a face that now seemed more familiar. I had always assumed that it was one of my stepfather’s relatives. And there it was by the door—a portrait of Fritz Haber. I had passed it dozens of times, whenever I visited, but not known who it was.

I wondered what my grandfather, who breathed Haber’s poisonous gas, might have thought of this twist of fate. It seemed to thread together all the ironies and dichotomies of the war: the unleashed brutality, the strife between enemies who were nevertheless connected, the horrible menace of science put in the service of violence, the peculiar contrast between the war’s historical significance and its overarching, utter pointlessness. Like the war itself, the coincidence was tragic and provoking at the same time. 

*          *          *


John Keegan, The First World WarAlfred A. Knopf, New York: 1999.

Paul F. Sifton, “Letter to Uncle Elmer, September 14, 1917.” Sifton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Stephen O'Shea, Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War IWalker and Company, New York: 1996.

Wilfred Owen, edited by C. Day Lewis, “Dulce et Decorum est,” The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. New Directions, New York: 1963.

Paul F. Sifton, More Stripes Than Stars, unpublished manuscript. Sifton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Fritz Stern, Einstein's German World. Princeton University Press, Princeton: 1999.

L. F. Haber, The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World WarOxford University Press, New York.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the NightScribner, New York: 1996.

Frederic Manning, The Middle Parts of FortuneText Publishing, Melbourne: 2000.

W.B. Yeats, edited by Richard J. Finneran, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” in The Collected Poems of W.B. YeatsScribner, New York: 1996. 

Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, 14-18: Understanding the Great War (Hill and Wang, New York: 2002).

Frédéric Duval, in Histoire de l'École Nationale des Chartes."

Michael Wood, Yeats and Violence, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Edgar Bérillon, La Bromidrose fétide de la race allemande. Revue de psychothérapie, Paris, 1915.