Magical Thinking in the World War I Generation
Les Éparges, April 1915
I usually refrain from using graphic images in this Substack, but I am breaking that rule now because it is important. We live in an increasingly fractured reality of media silos in which a rising generation has been misled to believe “feelings matter more than facts.” The last time this happened at scale, the result is what you see in the photo.
Feelings — even the ardent, real, aching emotions that drive us to do the most incredible things, achieve incredible heights, endure incredible odds as people — are just ephemeral psychological states. They do not have any power against material reality. Justice is not in fact a state of matter or energy, and therefore it is not a thing that the Universe actually gives a damn about, much less bends great arcs of history towards.
In 1914, every combatant power assumed, as a matter of course, that “offensive spirit” would overcome material factors. Never mind the use of barbed wire against infantry assault, or the total vulnerability of men in the open to machine guns and high explosives. It was an article of faith among every general staff that the secret of success against the storm of steel was to want it hard enough.
What you see in that trench are French victims of this magical thinking. Repeated assaults on a hasty German trench have largely destroyed it in order to save it. The palisade has been reinforced with corpses. Primary sources from the Western Front are full of this grisly stuff. We read it all today and wonder how on earth human beings could have ever been convinced to do this. Historians still write entire books to explain it.
Let us compress a complex tale. Everyone had their own reasons for conversion to the Cult of the Offensive before the war. For example, the French Army officer corps hated the reorganization plans of socialist politicians, whereas the Russians wanted to surprise the Germans with unexpected speed so as to aid their French ally. What they all shared was a counterintuitive defensive-mindedness — the idea that in the event of a general European war, their best defensive strategy was a swift, overpowering offense.
It would work if the men just wanted it hard enough. During three years of failure, armies blamed themselves for not wanting to win fervently enough. “Shell shock” from high explosive blast trauma was too often interpreted as a moral failing in the soldiers. A whole generation of European youth was grist for this mill, giving rise to conspiratorial explanations that ignore the concurrent Cult of Youth that existed across Europe in the two decades before 1914.
It was the very first time that media hype and marketing had created a distinct, self-aware social ‘generation.’ When we speak of ‘Generation X’ or ‘Millennials,' we are referring to this idea popularized during the Belle Epoque, at the height of Victorian imperialism, when all the available “frontier” around the world had been claimed by rival European powers and the world was rapidly shrinking thanks to new technologies.
Charles Péguy, a French poet, was in the avant-garde of this movement; he became a fervent Catholic before the war and a passionate officer at the outbreak. But then Péguy was shot in the head and killed during an attack, reportedly while leading his men into oblivion with the most beautiful, passionate exhortations.
‘Want it hard enough or die trying’ was not a stupid idea imposed from above. It was a popular foolishness of the times, perfectly in character with the fervent religiosity that also characterized this period. No scene written in those times speaks to this spirit of them better than James Barrie’s Peter Pan, wherein the eponymous character convinces the children in the audience that they can save Tinkerbell from deadly poison if they clap their hands hard enough.
It is fine as children’s entertainment. When the poison gas shells go off around you, though, no amount of clapping will save anyone who hasn’t got a mask on. They become part of the palisade, blossoming flowers of putrefaction, sacrifices to the Moloch of magical thinking.