World War I
World War I began in 1914 and ended in 1918. It was the first mechanized war, the first to rely on advances in technology (such as airplanes and poison gas), and it was also the first worldwide conflict of the modern age. Accordingly, it had a lasting impact on the twentieth century, both politically and culturally. An estimated ten million soldiers were killed, and civilian casualties came to almost seven million. As Spark notes in her story, over eight million soldiers were killed and over twenty million were wounded, and these numbers are based in fact. Such massive numbers of deaths in war had not taken place before in recorded history.
Spark’s story reflects on the last year of the war. She constantly refers to the Western Front, where most of the slaughter was taking place. The Western Front began in Belgium, which German forces invaded in 1914, through France to the Vosges Mountains. Yet, from 1915 to 1917, despite the intensity of the battles there, German forces did not continue to advance. Increased offensives on the part of the United Kingdom, and of the United States, which entered the war in June 1917, forced the Germans to take more aggressive action, which culminated in the German spring offensive in 1918 (Spark also refers to this event in the story. The offensive was predominantly successful, and German troops pushed well into France. However, Allied forces responded by finally agreeing on a unified command, that of General Ferdinand Foch (the man responsible for the war cry Spark quotes in ‘‘The First Year of My Life’’). Offenses led by Foch in July ultimately proved to the Germans that their situation was untenable. Germany’s allies began signing armistices as early as September, though Germany itself did not do so until November 11. This date is generally held to represent the official end of the war.
War Poets/Soldier Poets
Much of the poetry written during World War I is understandably preoccupied with the war itself, and many of the poets of the day were soldiers. This phenomenon accounts for the term war poet or soldier poet. The deaths of many of these poets are lamented by the characters in Spark’s story. Among those mourned is the English poet and soldier Wilfred Owen. The story also quotes the opening lines from his famous 1917 poem ‘‘Anthem for Doomed Youth.’’ Another poem quoted at length in Spark’s story is Alan Seeger’s 1917 poem ‘‘I Have a Rendezvous with Death.’’ Seeger was an American who fought for France. He, too, was killed in action. Other notable war poets killed during the war include Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, and Charles Sorley. Those who survived include Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. War poetry of the day fell into two categories, that which glorified battle and that which satirized it or disabused its readers of the vainglorious notions attached to the ideals of war, such as honor, courage, and bravery). Poetry of the first sort was more common in the first year of the war, when soldiers were eager to fight the enemy and believed the war would soon be over. As the slaughter continued and the casualty counts rose, the tone of the poetry changed, and most of the poets who are still read today are those in the latter category. It is clear that Spark favors this group, as is clear not only from the theme of ‘‘The First Year of My Life,’’ but from the poetry quoted.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Muriel Spark – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.