Why They Fought

by Tracy R. Walsh

In a review of Paul Jankowski’s Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War, Robert Zaretsky considers what kept soldiers from deserting the trenches:

French_87th_Regiment_Cote_34_Verdun_1916Why did they accept being fodder for cannons when they saw through the official justifications for the hecatomb, when there seemed no end in sight, when the only winner was the battle itself?  The reasons were complex. … In the end, it was neither military constraint nor fear of punishment that kept men in the trenches. Nor was it patriotism or republicanism, even though Jankowski suggests that many soldiers absorbed the dehumanizing propaganda aimed at “les boches.” Instead, what mostly kept the men going – the fuel to a Beckettian “I can’t go on, I will go on” – were the bonds to family and fellow poilus.

Perhaps the most astonishing statistic of the war, and not just Verdun, is that more than 10 billion letters were sent to and from the home front and front lines. As Paul Fussell pointed out long ago, it was a literary war, one in which the literature of letter writing reminded soldiers why they were fighting. This sense of duty was deepened by the presence of fellow soldiers to either side of them in their shared hell. It was, Jankowski concludes, a kind of duty that “sprang from within themselves, from allegiance rather than enmity and attachment rather than antipathy.”

(Photo: French soldiers of the 87th Regiment, 6th Division, at Côte 304 (Hill 304), northwest of Verdun, 1916. Via Wikimedia Commons.)