This month, there have been many remembrances of the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. My favorite to date is an installation of what will eventually be 888,246 ceramic poppies—one for every soldier who died serving under the British flag.
The poppies flow out of and around the Tower of London, and they recall the words of one of those dead, Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae, whose famed poem "In Flanders Fields" ends with these sentiments:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The honorable service implied in McCrae’s justly celebrated poem belies the moral bankruptcy of Western society at the outbreak of World War I. European society was permeated by the crisis of nihilism that threw into doubt standards of honor, dignity, and humanity, and creating a situation in which all values are mere “value judgments” with no ultimate ground.
To review the utter frivolousness of European society in 1914, one needs only to pick up Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, which is as much a sociological study as a political-military one. Tuchman illustrates the triviality of the concerns of European elites, finding particularly choice examples among the French.
Thinking nothing of the terrors of war, French elites rejected out of hand calls to dress their soldiers with a view to camouflage rather than fashion:
To clothe the French solider in some muddy, inglorious color, declared the army’s champions, would be to realize the fondest hopes of Dreyfusards and Freemasons. To banish “all that is colorful, all that gives the soldier his vivid aspect,” wrote the Echo de Paris, “is to go contrary both to French taste and military function.” . . . At a parliamentary hearing a former War Minister, M. Etinenne, spoke for France.
“Eliminate the red trousers?” he cried. “Never! Le pantallon rouge c’est la France!”
The young men committed to war were likewise preoccupied with the most fatuous, vain concerns:
Officers from St. Cyr went into battle wearing white-plumed shakos and white gloves; it was considered “chic” to die in white gloves.
These were the concerns not of a few fashion aficionados, but indicative of the triviality of European society in 1914. Would the Greeks, or the Romans, or the Crusaders, or even later European armies, who all had standards concerning what was appropriate to a soldier’s dress, have concerned themselves with what was “chic”? Or have been more concerned with how they were dressed rather than whether their souls were prepared for death? Being concerned with what is “chic” is an utter debasement of what it might be to be concerned with the good, the true, and the beautiful.
And, of course, it wasn’t just European society that was morally bankrupt in 1914. Edith Wharton’s powerful 1913 novel, The Custom of the Country—the “country” being America—portrays a society whose elites, epitomized by Undine Spragg, were equally preoccupied with fashion, wealth, and frivolity.
As it turned out, World War I didn’t cure Western society’s moral bankruptcy—the war was followed instead by the Roaring Twenties (Wharton’s Undine Spragg has much in common with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby). It took the Depression and confrontation with Nazism in World War II to give rise to “the Greatest Generation.” The moral health of a society rises and falls over time—and the centennial of the outbreak of World War is an invitation to evaluate how the moral health of society today stands compared to that of a century ago.