Paul Fussell was an American scholar best known for his writing about World Wars I and II. He was a veteran of the latter conflict as a 20 years infantry officer who served in Western Europe after D-Day. He was wounded, after which he received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. After the war, Fussell resumed his education, eventually earning a PhD in English literature. His writing on that subject is more of interest to academics, but his books relating to combat have reached a broader audience. The Great War and Modern Memory, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, The Boys’ Crusade: the American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945, and Doing Battle: the Making of a Skeptic are the most important of these. The first two that show the contrast between the cultures of the two wars will be the focus of this essay.
The Great War and Modern Memory is probably Fussell’s best known work. It outlines the British experience in World War I and how that influenced writers, especially poets, reliving that part of their lives. Fussell, as he does in all his books in this vein, writes about the frustrations the lower ranks have to put with in the combat environment. According to Fussell that war is ironic; for example, battles seldom go the way planners think they will. At the battle of the Somme in 1916, for example, the Allied artillery pounded the German positions leading generals to think that foot soldiers will be able to walk into German trenches unopposed. Instead, the infantry marched into withering machine gun fire and the British took 6,000 casualties on the first day.
The war was not fought the army veterans who commended the British troops who were sent to France expected. Cavalry was useless against machine gun fire and the infantry tactics had similar success against artillery fire. New weapons such as machine guns, gas, airplanes, and tanks were new ways to kill and maim. These new killing machines kept large armies from advancing and the war on the Western front stalemated to trenches with a no man’s land in between. Fussell writes a lot about the influence that conflict had on poets and other writers who romanced the war. He notes the war poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Thomas Hardy, and Wilfred Owen, contributions to the Oxford Book of English Verse.
Fussell’s does in writing non-fiction what some authors, such as Heller in Catch 22 and Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five, did in fiction. Of course Fussell is a veteran of combat in Europe in 1944-1945, where he was a young second lieutenant in the infantry. He dedicated The Great War and Modern Memory to the sergeant who was killed beside him in France in 1945.
After reading Fussell’s books, the difference in the American culture in the twenty years between the two wars is obvious. In the movie theaters, talkies had arrived. Radio brought news and entertainment into people’s homes. Celebrities who once was seen only in the big screen now were heard on the radio on a weekly basis. Big band leaders such as Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman had their own radio shows. Hollywood produced patriotic films, some involving combat starring John Wayne who never served in the military. Meanwhile, in Britain, the BBC kept broadcasting educational programs while the bombs were falling on London during the blitz.
Acronyms, which were a holdover from the New Deal, were popular, especially in the military: SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) or my favorite COMAMPHIBFORSOPAC (Commander, Amphibious Force, South Pacific). There were some others which made their way into civilian language, FUBAR, for example.
The big difference between the American experience in the Great War and World War II was that the American government decided when to declare on Germany in 1917, but Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor took that decision out Roosevelt’s hands in 1941. Once in the fight, Americans had put up with shortages at home and rationing. Not to the extent it happened Britain, where rationing continued until 1954.
A green reporter encountered an infantry squad on the front line in Europe and asked what they would say to the people at home: “…Tell them it’s more serious than they’ll ever be able to understand…. Tell them it’s is rough as hell, Tell them it’s rough. It’s rough, serious business. That’s all. That’s all….”