Matériel Culture: The Archaeology of 20th Century Conflict

By John Schofield; William Gray Johnson et al. | Go to book overview

3

The ironic 'culture of shells' in the Great War and beyond

NICHOLAS J. SAUNDERS

The brains of science, the money of fools
Had fashioned an iron slave.

('The Shell', Private H. Smalley Sarson, 1993)


THE SHELLS OF WAR

The Great War of 1914-18 was recognized at the time as 'the war of matériel' - a dramatic example of a world transformed by and constituted of its material culture (Miller 1985:204-5). If objects make people just as people make objects (see for example Pels 1998:101), then the defining objects of the First World War were the millions of artillery shells made in munitions factories across Europe and the United States from 1914 to 1918 and fired in huge quantities particularly along the Western Front. More shells were fired in the battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 than in the whole of the Boer War (Gilbert 1994:132). The dead and injured accumulated in vast numbers, forcing us perhaps to agree with Allain Bernède (1997:91) that, 'the front … [was] … nothing but the continuation of the factory'. Shell production, warfare and death had been industrialized.

It is not surprising that artillery shells have come to symbolize the world's first experience of total war. Shells devastated landscape as well as people, transformed economies, altered gender relations through an industrialized military complex, became art and icon, and possessed symbolic resonances which ambiguously combined Modernism and pre-war realities. If the modern world was forged in the crucible of war, then shells were the catalyst, fragmenting peoples, places and institutions.

In writing a cultural biography of the shell (pace Kopytoff 1986), we can explore the complex relationship between human beings, the things they made and used, and the nature of the physical, spiritual, and metaphorical worlds they created through the agency of destruction (Saunders n.d.a). Rich in symbolism and irony, shells were mediators between men and women, soldiers and civilians, individuals and industrialized society, the nations which fought the war, and, perhaps most of all, between the living and the dead.

-22-

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