Detail from William Orpen, Ready to Start (1917). © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2380)

Robert Graves, the poet and novelist best known for I, Claudius, wrote and published his memoir of the First World War, Good-Bye to All That, in 1929, during what he later described as a “complicated domestic crisis.” This was something of an understatement. Graves had been living with his wife, Nancy Nicholson, their four children, and the poet Laura Riding, whom he’d invited to join them from America, in a ménage à trois, first in Cairo and then in London. During that time he fell rapidly out of love with Nicholson (relegated to a boat in the river with their kids) and into it with Riding.

The trois became a quatre after Riding read and liked a poem by Geoffrey Phibbs, whom she then invited to leave his wife and join them. But Phibbs, who grew increasingly uncomfortable with the situation as time went on, eventually ran away. When Graves and Riding tracked him down and brought him back, he told Riding he didn’t love her. Riding responded by sliding out of the window of their fourth-story apartment. Graves took off down the stairs to help her before realizing the gravity of the situation: that the quatre had most likely reverted to a trois. And so, by that point three stories up, he jumped from a window, too. Phibbs excused himself and left, not bothering to check if either was still alive. Nicholson called an ambulance.

Riding and Graves both survived their falls, and after Riding was out of the hospital they moved to Majorca on the suggestion of Gertrude Stein. (Phibbs and Nicholson fell in love themselves, and lived together for some years on the boat.) It was in Majorca, in the wake of all this, that Graves began work on the memoir. And so Good-Bye to All That became, he wrote, “my bitter leave-taking of England where I had recently broken a good many conventions; quarreled with, or been disowned by, most of my friends; been grilled by the police on a suspicion of attempted murder [Riding’s—the police also nabbed and questioned Phibbs]; and ceased to care what anyone thought of me.” He wrote it in just under three months. He badly needed the money.

* * *

Graves had always been difficult, unpopular. He spent the last five years of his secondary education at Charterhouse School, where he was a frequent victim of bullying and generally miserable. One of his teachers there, however, was the mountain climber George Mallory, “not long up from Cambridge and so youthful-looking as to be often mistaken for a member of the school.” Mallory took Graves under his wing, took him out climbing and hiking in the countryside, and introduced him to the world of contemporary poetry.

In early 1914 there was a school debate at Charterhouse, one of those debating society affairs robed in pomp and ritual, on the question of compulsory military service. Graves, who’d resigned from the school’s Officers’ Training Corps “in revolt against the theory of implicit obedience to orders,” led the argument against. He lost. The final tally was 113 in favor, six opposed. Graves graduated that spring and won a scholarship to study classics at St. John’s College, Oxford, but it would be five years before he’d attend. Of the other five students who’d opposed the draft with Graves, only one survived the war.

Graves enlisted almost immediately after the outbreak of hostilities, outraged at propaganda reports that the Germans were committing war crimes in Belgium. Commissioned in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, he proved himself immediately and massively unpopular with fellow officers. He was of German descent (full name: Robert von Ranke Graves), suspicious of authority, quirky, gangly, opinionated.1 The enlisted men liked him. They arrived at the front in May of 1915.

As he tells it in Good-Bye, Graves spent his first night on the line wandering around lost through the maze of trenches. As the sun came up the next morning, Graves, trying to find the way back to his headquarters, passed a man curled up in a machine-gun shelter and moved to wake him up. “No good talking to him, sir,” another machine-gunner said. Graves didn’t notice the hole in the man’s head until he bent down to shake his shoulder. The dead machine-gunner had taken off one of his boots and the corresponding sock, put his rifle in his mouth, and pulled the trigger with his toe. “He went through the last push, sir, and that sent him a bit queer; on top of that he got bad news from Limerick about his girl and another chap,” the other machine-gunner explained. An officer passing by: “We’ve had several of these lately.”

Graves, as Paul Fussell noted in The Great War and Modern Memory, had a flair for the theatrical, the ironic flourish. Not the war, the last big push, but the girlfriend. The machine-gunner could have stayed at home for that. So Graves’s first real experience of war was not a thundering charge but a quiet, private fight, already over, waged at great remove within some other self; one small, sad irony in a sea. It was not uncommon, as the passing officer noted, for soldiers to lose such battles. But exactly how many committed suicide in the trenches is anybody’s guess—they were rarely reported.

Otto Dix, Toter Sappenposten (1924). Trustees of the British Museum ©DACS 2014

There’s something ambiguous about suicide during war. Especially on the First World War’s battlefields—in all their stagnant misery—the distinction between sanity and madness blurs. Such is the gist of Rebecca West’s 1918 novel The Return of the Soldier, in which a shell-shocked Chris Baldry returns from the front having regressed 15 years. He’s forgotten the war, forgotten the sorrow he felt for his son Oliver—who died young—and forgotten his somewhat unpleasant aristocratic wife. He’s happy, in other words, and in love again with his old flame Margaret. Naturally, by the end of things, a psychiatrist is called to restore the gap in his memory, and he is rendered sane. But by restoring Baldry’s sanity, he is also made fit again to fight, and to feel obliged to fight, and so, potentially, even probably, even necessarily, to die. This is almost exactly what happened to Wilfred Owen, the war’s most famous poet. Owen returned voluntarily to the front after treatment for shell shock and was killed in action on November 4th, 1918. The war ended seven days later.

The painter Otto Dix served in the German army, enlisting, as Graves had, that August when the war broke out. A decade later, in 1924, he produced a portfolio of etchings called Der Krieg. One of them, “Toter Sappenposten,” depicts the worm-ridden corpse of a sentry in a trench, grotesque and horribly rotted. The bones of one hand are wrapped around his rifle; the muzzle rests by his mouth. One of his boots is off. Was this a suicide, or a happenstance of rigor mortis and decay? The body is too far decomposed to make any definitive judgement. Which is, of course, the point. The line between putting a rifle in your mouth and climbing voluntarily over the parapet must have sometimes seemed pretty thin.

Despair rarely figures into the public remembrance of a war, especially one as distant as the First World War is now. Suicide is largely absent from these depictions—it cuts too deeply against the grain of what we want expressed: the transcendental potential of a seemingly insurmountable horror. Horror, being the part that nobody especially wants to remember, fades the fastest. So what empathy there was has long since been subsumed by mythmaking and cliché, the patina that coats a generation of monuments we hardly notice anyway. This is the transition from memory to history, from humanity to something else.

* * *

There have been hundreds of video games devoted to the Second World War, going back at least as far as 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein: The original Medal of Honor, conceived in part by Steven Spielberg as he was working on Saving Private Ryan, spawned eleven World War Two-themed sequels, and Call of Duty five, including the just-released Call of Duty: WWII. Then you’ve got Battlefields 1942 and 1943, Day of Defeat, the Brothers in Arms series, the Sniper Elite series, Red Orchestras 1 and 2, Days of War, Darkest Hour, the Battlestrike series, Hour of Victory, and so on and so forth.

If you were to construct your knowledge of that war from these games, you would have no idea that the Holocaust happened. You wouldn’t know about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the firebombing of Dresden, or the Nanjing Massacre, or the mass rape perpetrated by the Wehrmacht, or by the Red Army as it ground back towards Berlin. You wouldn’t know what the Yalta Conference was, how the Nazis came to power, that nearly 90,000 Indians died fighting for the British, or that there was another war thirty years before. It’s war without civilians, a before and an after, a context or purpose—just a series of vignettes. But, sure, video games aren’t supposed to teach us everything we ought to know.

Thirty years into the evolution of the first-person shooter, there have only been two devoted to the First World War, and only one from a major studio. 2016’s Battlefield 1 (the “1” denoting the First World War) is the real deal—a big, tentpole title in a long-running blockbuster franchise. The gross revenue BF1 generated would be the envy of most major motion pictures. It was the second best-selling game of 2016. It has more than 19 million players, which, as a point of comparison, is about the population of Romania. We’re working our way through the centennial now, so I guess somebody had to do it.

The First World War was so striking, and left such a lasting mark on the collective psyche, because it marked society’s sudden collapse into chaos after a pretty good run. And because, as the first major industrial war, it was uniquely shocking in its brutality. Paul Fussell, famously: “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends.” But the uniquely ridiculous circumstances of the First World War—all those people destroyed “because two persons, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his Consort, had been shot”—made possible a snowballing of the old Victorian certitude into the ironic detachment of the years that followed.

An interesting thing about Battlefield 1 is how clearly it draws the line, and probably not in the way that was intended, between that time and our own. The presidency of Donald Trump is nothing if not ironic. The surge of nationalism across the US and Europe; the wars in Syria and Ukraine, great powers looming over both; the creak and groan of a breaking point. That sense of progress seizing up, then rolling backwards. “It feels like the summer of 1914,” said a lot of people recently, with no reference at all to the really good graphics of Battlefield 1.

To render war depictable is the first step toward entertainment. This requires a stripping-down to the simple matter of winning or losing, which is extremely consumable and fun. War in which death is essentially meaningless, less tragic than annoying; the battlefield—a graveyard in active development—becomes a cool place to poke around. You could find a real-world analogue to this, even as the First World War was happening, in Kensington Gardens, in London, where trenches were dug to give civilians a sense of what life looked like at the front. Not to sell games—to sell the war. Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother in January of 1917 and called them “the laughing-stock of the army.” The real thing he described like this: “No Man’s Land under snow is like the face of the moon, chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.” Something someone would say in a game, maybe, but never about one.

The ubiquity of anti-war rhetoric inspired by the First World War—in the spirit of Hemingway’s famous line in A Farewell to Arms, that “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were [made] obscene”—also defanged it. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we say. I get it. And this applies equally to the obvious, immediate response: that, in fact, we don’t get it, that war can’t be understood by those who haven’t experienced it. And so professing not to know becomes another kind of knowing. As Geoff Dyer put it in The Missing of the Somme, “The phrase ‘horror of war’ has become so automatic a conjunction that it conveys none of the horror it is meant to express.”

John Singer Sargent, Six Studies for Gassed (1918)

So of course Battlefield 1 starts with a sort of prologue designed ostensibly to get this point out of the way. You’re in the 369th Infantry Regiment, the “Harlem Hellfighters,” and you’re under attack by Germans, somewhere in France, sometime in 1918. The level is set up so that your death is guaranteed. Every time that happens, a randomly generated name with [randomly generated d.o.b. usually indicating tragic youth]–1918 below it pops up, and then you swoop into the body of somebody else, progressing through increasingly crazy situations involving a herd of tanks and a zeppelin and a gas attack, in case you understandably had forgotten which war this was, before you die for good and proceed to the main menu and one of five other stories to pursue.

Siegfried Sassoon was so furious at the factual liberties Graves took in Good-Bye to All That he severed their friendship for decades. But he was very moody and kind of a crank. He indulged—rarely, when he was at his worst—in a grating sanctimony so pointed as to seem insincere. It’s a tic the makers of Battlefield 1 may have picked up. The first thing you see when you load BF1 is white text on a black background that reads: “More than 60 million soldiers fought in ‘The War to End All Wars.’ It ended nothing. Yet it changed the world forever. What follows is frontline combat. You are not expected to survive.”

The five other pieces of the single-player campaign take place largely late in the war, which means you get to have more automatic weapons. There’s one set during the Battle of Cambrai which involves a tank way behind the German lines; one that takes place primarily in a biplane and culminates in a massive Howard Hughes-y aerial battle over London; one on the Italian front where you get a gigantic suit of armor; a sped-up Gallipoli one in which a wise Australian shepherds a weirdly incompetent young private; and one on the Arabian Peninsula that has to do with T. E. Lawrence.

Lawrence, more popularly known as of Arabia, is the only historical figure who appears anywhere in the game. Strangely, despite obviously being able to, had they wanted, the man they’ve rendered in the game doesn’t actually look like Lawrence. The game’s Lawrence has a smaller nose, a narrower chin, thinner lips. He’s handsome in a generic, The Bachelor sort of way. This section of the game takes place in the spring of 1918. You would not know, watching the Lawrence rendered here, that he’d been captured the preceding November by Ottoman troops, viciously beaten, and sexually assaulted. This Lawrence comes across as very light-hearted and cavalier, like a camp counselor with a gun. To each their own.

* * *

Games devoted to war are nothing new. Chess is the prime example—a derivation, most people think, of an ancient Indian game, Chaturanga, which was modeled on the armies of the day. The first games created explicitly to simulate war were invented in Prussia by Friedrich Wilhelm III’s staff in 1812. Called the Kriegsspiel, literally “war game,” it was a table with a grid system representing the battlefield, and had a complicated set of rules meant to simulate Napoleonic warfare. It was extraordinarily boring.

H. G. Wells, a devoted pacifist, created his own version in 1913. He called it Little Wars. The idea was to use toy soldiers to create a vicarious sort of fun that might illustrate a major war’s disastrous human cost, and to scratch the martial itch without all the actual killing. “Great War is at present, I am convinced, not only the most expensive game in the universe, but it is a game out of all proportion,” Wells wrote. “Not only are the masses of men and material and suffering and inconvenience too monstrously big for reason, but—the available heads we have for it, are too small.” It was a nice thought.

Where things get tricky with Battlefield 1, compared to chess or Wells’s toy soldiers, is the deliberate obfuscation, as a major marketing point, of the perceived line between the representation of war and the reality of it. Chess is warfare deliberately abstracted to the point of mathematics. You remain apart from the thing, and are not called to pull the trigger, or to want to. Battlefield 1 was constructed, marketed, and sold on the premise of immersion. Anders Morrell, one of the producers, put it this way: “We really want to make the player feel like they’re there. The explosions should be a physical force as you play; you should feel it, you should see it, it’s intense.” All in the service of creating the game’s central characteristic, which Morrell calls “epicness.”

John Nash, Over the Top (1918). © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1656)

I am not the violent type myself, though I played plenty of shooters when I was younger, and have never been on board with banning violent games. But BF1 threw things out of whack. I suppose I realized that it didn’t have to be this way. That this is what we decided fun would be.

In The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer, watching clips from The Battle of the Somme, a 1916 British propaganda film, is reminded of Faulkner’s line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We don’t need Battlefield 1 to experience the First World War. The First World War still exists. The Zone Rouge is a 42,000-acre blotch across northeastern France where it still boils with ancient rage, like some monumental herpes sore. These places, outside of Arras and Cambrai, Verdun and Ypres, were so utterly wasted they were deemed unfit for habitation, or agriculture, or recreation, or anything. The Zone Rouge remains, a century later, sodden with arsenic, studded with unexploded shells and barbed wire and rusting rifle barrels and the buttons and helmets and bones of the people who were killed there.

Teams of French and Belgian explosives experts work full-time, to this day, dismantling the explosives farmers turn up in their fields each year. That famous Belgian wit: They call it the iron harvest.

Nearly four hundred people have died, and hundreds more been injured, since the Armistice; victims of a war that ended before many of them were born. At the current rate they’ll keep on dying for another three or four hundred years before we’ve dug up all the bombs. So if you want to experience a taste of the First World War, you can—if you know what you’re doing it won’t cost much more than a PlayStation and a $60 game. Me, I don’t need to. The horror of war? I get it.

1. Graves was full of bizarre pet theories, and would be for the rest of his life—in 1970, in a televised interview with Edwin Newman on his NBC show Speaking Freely, Graves made the claim that homosexuality was “partly due to heredity, partly to environment, but largely because men now drink too much milk.”

Ed Winstead

Ed Winstead is Editor-in-Chief of Guernica. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Oxford American, BOMB, Interview, Literary Hub, and elsewhere.

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3 Comments on “Armistice Day in the Virtual Trenches

  1. An original and beautifully written piece that moves gracefully from Robert Graves to Otto Dix to Battlefield 1.

  2. I can’t begin to express how deeply this moves me. I shared it with the FB page “History of World War l.”

  3. Pat Barker’s novels Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road deal with WHR Rivers’ treatment of shell-shock, especially with Owen and Sassoon. An interesting aspect is that on his return to the trenches Owen was a much better officer – from a military view – than he had been before.

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