Green Gas, Video Games, and Great Writing on The Great War

by Nancy Means Wright

100 years ago this summer, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off (for complex reasons) one of the cruelest wars in history.  Whole generations of young men were lost on all sides, and I, for one, can’t stop reading and writing about them. I wept through the heartbreaking novel All Quiet on the Western Front when a disillusioned German soldier in the last months of the war stands up out of his trench to gaze at the fall foliage–and is killed.  I thought about that young German a fortnight ago as I heard the Stuttgart Boys’ Choir sing (on tour from Germany). Ah, those pure high voices–one sweet-faced pre-teen with blond hair falling to his shoulders–no soldier there! And now I’m rereading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in which he recreates his WW1 months in an Italian ambulance unit, the agonies of war, and the role of a deserter.

I think of the poems of British poet Wilfred Owen, who wrote of a soldier in a gas attack “floundering like a man in fire or lime… / Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”  The poem ends with the irony of “The old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” (It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”) Tragically, Owen was killed just days before the November Armistice–as were the brother and fiance of British nurse Vera Brittain, who wrote in her classic Testament of Youth of tall Americans marching jauntily along “like young gods” to the killing front.

On a happier note, my father-in-law dropped out of Middlebury College in 1918 to “join up” and fly an observation biplane over enemy territory. Luckily for him it was a short war, and he returned to college a student hero, and began barnstorming at country fairs.  He loved to bellow out euphemistic war songs like “It’s a Long Long Way to Tipperary” and “Over There.”  Then there was old Charlie Willson, our octogenarian family carpenter, who was gassed in that war and for the rest of his life had nightmares of “shrieking shells and cries of the wounded.” While he was working on our roof or barn, he would shout down war stories to anyone who’d listen–as though compelled to tell them.

TV productions like Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge  move their characters in and out of The Great War, and we hold our breath, praying our fictional heroes will survive–even if it’s with a missing arm or leg. The characters in my new multi-generational novel, Queens Never Make Bargains, endure the war at home and in the trenches, where in the confusion of shell fire and greenish gas, my protagonist’s soldier-lover stumbles off, his legs taking over his brain–away from the terrible war.

And we all admire Charles and Caroline Todd who write two award-winning mystery series set during and after WW1, featuring the shell-shocked veteran inspector Rutledge (Hunting Shadows); and Bess Crawford, a nurse in France (A Question of Honor). Mother and son make us relive all the passion and panic of the times.

Finally, I was surprised to read about a new, interactive, virtually non-violent French WW1 video game, “Valiant Hearts,” in which a young soldier named Emile must choose  between his officer’s orders to charge to the right, through gas and shells–or run left (to desert)  and onto an officer’s sword. Tough choices! The game depicts four years of war as lived by Emile, by an American volunteer Freddie, a field nurse Anna, and a dog–among others. One discovers the brutality of the trenches but also the human drama. Instead of firing rifles, players dress wounds, dig trenches, duck aircraft fire, and liberate prisoners. They hear the night quiet–or the muttering enemy, and they fear what’s ahead. They run, hide, and solve puzzles, all in real life locations and scenes from the war.

Surely a video I’d want to buy for my grandchildren! To keep the memory alive, yes–although a video game can never wholly emulate the horror of a war the did not, as hoped,  end all wars.



10 Responses

  1. Very thoughtful, Nancy.
    For me, it’s WWII and the memory of blackouts on the East Coast, my father in a Civil Defense arm band, and the trip to the roof of our building, throwing confetti when it “ended.”
    I wonder which one will really end them all.

    • Thanks, Camille. I didn’t think anyone but myself would be interested in this subject. But I find it endlessly fascinating–and horrifying. World War 11, yes. I recently finished Anthony Doerr’s marvellous All the Light We Cannot See, set in WW11, in alternating POVs–a young French girl and a young German, pulled despite himself into the war. Gorgeously written! And so moving.

  2. Hi, Nancy,

    My mother was a great story teller and could tell me about WWI and WWII. Isn’t it amazing how family stories of past generations effect our imaginations and creative efforts? I love your multi-generational novel and hope it find a large readership.

    • Lovely of you to say so, Jacquie. And how great to have a storytelling mother, although I can guess that’s in the genes for you. I expect there are stories you can use in your own writing.

  3. Interesting and timely blog, Nancy. I love Downton and Selfridge and actually taught All Quiet. The WWI poems are downright tragic–and so realistic. Thanks goodness we are too old here for video games! Thanks for the post!

    • So interesting that you taught All Quiet on the Western Front, Susan.
      It was such an experience to re-read it. An amazingly compassionate, intelligent novel. I don’t do video games either, but have bought them for my grandkids, and am happy to see a non-violent one that actually teaches a bit of history. Thank you for reading this!

  4. Nancy,
    War is a condition that touches us all and never leaves us. As a 5-year- old traumatized by my doting father’s enlistment at age 35 in WW II, I can never forget, just recall, the devoted service of Dad and millions of others like him, who changed history by putting their lives on the line to “fight the bullies,” as he told me, and fend off the threat of a world under fascism, mother, sister and I coped at home with making ends meet, loneliness and the dread of even greater loss. As you know, I tell both sides of this story in my biographical memoir, Ben’s War with the U., S Marines, just out in its second edition. Thanks for a great post.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, Peter. Having read your book on your father’s war, I know how deeply your feelings run on this subject–world war one and two. My older brother was a WW2 B29 navigator–dangerous, but doubtless “easier” than for those fighting on the ground–and especially in the WW1 trenches.Yes, we owe so much to those dedicated (and dying) men in both wars.

  5. Testament of Youth is such a powerful book, Nancy, as is Brittain’s Testament of Friendship. Queens Never Make Bargains sounds intriguing–great review from Kirkus–I look forward to reading it.

  6. I agree, Anita. Vera Brittains’ books are so poignant–and her life, as well. I’m glad to know you’ve read and appreciated her work, too. Thanks so much for your comment!

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