In the 1930’s film adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, there is a scene in which soldiers discuss the causes of the war. The first cause they come up with is that counties offended one another, which begs the question of what German mountain offended which French hill. The soldiers then amend their statement to say that people offended one another, prompting one soldiers pipes up that he isn’t offended in the least, and is therefor ready to head home. The soldiers continue to joke back and forth, never answering the question of what caused the war.
Having watched the movie only last night, this scene from the film resonated with me this morning when we arrived at the Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, and our discussion turned to 1918 and the unanticipated early end of the war. Few military leaders expected the War to end in 1918, and it’s probably fair to say that soldiers were even more skeptical about the likelihood of a quick end. Still today, many historians still struggle to explain every facet and answer every question about the 100 days campaign, and the way in which the Great War was finally brought to a close.
As I walked through the cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux, my thoughts and emotions were very much framed by the contrast of these two questions—what caused the war in the first place, and why did it end when it did? As it took in the names of 10, 773 Australian soldiers with no known graves killed in France between 1916 and 1919, I was immensely dissatisfied with the lack of answers that still seem to prevail when we consider the causes and cessations of war.
My sense of frustration returned later in the day when I had the opportunity to walk through the South African Memorial in Delville Wood, which commemorates the South African contribution to the Great War in a location where the South African 1st Infantry Brigade suffered an almost 80% casualty rate. Across the road from the South African Memorial is the Delville Woods Cemetery, in which 5,523 soldiers are buried (3, 593 unknown). Walking through these memorials and cemeteries, reading the names of the South African, British, Australian, New Zealanders, Canadian, Scottish, Irish—the list could go on—soldiers who died in these same fields I’m walking through today makes not having all the answers a hard pill to swallow.
To just wrap up, while I felt a strong sense of frustration at the inability of history to provide me with answers that I sought, I was also reminded why I chose to study history. In his book on the Dieppe Raid, Brian Villa states that the truth is perhaps the most significant form of respect we can give to the dead. As a young historian still finding my way in the field, this is one idea that continues to propel me forward, even if it means addressing some difficult questions, and sometimes accepting that I don’t know how to find the answers I seek. As I reflect on my day and the trip up to this point, I think this is one of those times that I have to accept that questions are going to be difficult and answers are often going to be unsatisfactory. But I also need to keep in mind that even if I’m struggling with these questions, looking for and (hopefully) finding the answers is one of the best ways to ensure that the fallen receive the remembrance, dignity, and respect they so deserve.