Much of the gentleness of Europe had been dissipated anyway, before the First World War. Commercialisation, the era of the sophist, the economist and the calculator that Edmund Burke long ago identified had already come about. It co-existed however with a continuing gentleness of Faith, Monarchy, rural life and homesteads. Alongside the grime and misery of industrialisation, the older world still lingered – sustained because that was the natural way to live. A portrait of that world was powerfully painted by Siegfried Sassoon in his book Memoir of a Foxhunting Man.
The Great War was the first industrial and first fully-mechanised war. Men were no longer bands of brothers, but pawns to be sacrificed. When the clouds of smoke cleared and the barren landscape remained, that gentler world could no longer survive. The pressures were building, but the Great War ensured the victory of Modernity.
The combatants indeed represented different worlds. Austria-Hungary and Germany placed their faith in the new power of mechanised warfare. The descendants of the Holy Roman Empire again turned on the remnants of Byzantium, supported by the Ottomans. In its harassment of the small state of Serbia, Austria-Hungary was only following in the spirit of the Catholic Crusaders who sacked Christian Constantinople in 1204 for gain of its treasure.
The new nation of Germany allied with the Hapsburgs made war on an older Christian culture in its attack on Serbia, bringing Holy Russia into the conflict, in defence of its tiny Orthodox brother. The mechanised horror of modern warfare the Germanic nations wrought on Russia, brought an end to the Orthodox Monarchy and saw the forces of materialism and modernity Dostoevsky foresaw taking control of Russia. The Russia of greedy, crass oligarchs that we see today is the result of the triumph of those forces and the Holy Spiritual Russia is still battling to re-emerge.
In England things changed forever. For many the painful losses of War at least meant the forces of Progress triumphed – women’s suffrage, class distinctions beginning to dissolve and a greater faith in science and the Machine (that force identified with all its dangers by that Anglophobe Anglican R S Thomas).
Yet with those many, many young men who died for us – to protect us from a German-dominated single State of Europe – did not something of England’s spirit die too? For all our progress, didn’t something intangible yet profound die with our boys on Flanders Field? Haven’t we been left with an uglier world all round – a world where money does the talking, faith is seen as blind not as vital for our existence and our beautiful countryside is disappearing, subject to the forces of greed and gain?
Edward Thomas died for the land of England more than anything else. The England his poetry describes, however, seems more like a distant memory.
Yet I would not dare say they died in vain. For by resisting Germany we did retain our freedom in the West despite all the ugliness of the modern world. By keeping that freedom – unlike Russia’s fate as it fell under the control of the merciless Bolsheviks - we at least have the power to make the choice to rebuild that gentler world. Much as consumerism and technology can separate us from trusting in older values, the young men who died protected our freedom to resist the erosion by the forces of modernity of our spiritual inheritance.