Chapter 4

War and Waste

All Quiet on the Western Front

November 11, 1999

Like a wet, furry ball they plucked me up. . . .

—Rupert Brooke

In August 1914, millions of young men began putting on uniforms. These wet, furry balls were plucked from towns all over Europe, put on trains, and sent toward the fighting. Back home, mothers, fathers, and bar owners unrolled maps so they could follow the progress of the men and boys they loved and trace, with their fingers, the glory and gravity of war.

I found one of those maps . . . with the front lines as they were in 1916 still indicated . . . rolled up in the attic of our house in France. I looked at it and wondered what people must have thought . . . and how horrified they must have been at what happened.

It was a war unlike any other the world had seen. Aging generals looked to the lessons of the American War between the States or the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 for clues as to how the war might proceed. But there were no precedents for what was to happen. It was a new era in warfare.

People were already familiar with the promise of the machine age. They had seen it coming, developing, building for a long time. They had even changed the language they used to reflect this new understanding of how things worked. In his book, Devil Take the Hindmost, Edward Chancellor recalls how the railway investment mania had caused people to talk about “getting up steam” or “heading down the track” or “being on the right track.” All of these new metaphors ...

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