It’s the Lost Generation for so many reasons. They lost their lives and their health in the fields of the Great War. They lost their future. They lost their hopes.
Still, it was precisely from them that a new world eventually emerged.
According to legends, Gertrude Stein passed on her garage mechanic’s words – “You are all a lost generation” – to Ernest Hemingway during a conversation. He then used that phrase in the epigraph of his book The Sun Also Rises, and that’s how we all learned it.
It refers to the generation born between 1883 and 1900, who came of age during or immediately after the Great War and was greatly impacted by that event.
There are indeed many reasons why this generation was ‘lost’.
They had died in the war in such high numbers that, in truth, that generation had almost disappeared.
Estimations have shifted over the decades – and are still shifting -, but according to the most recent researches, about 74 million men were mobilised (48 million by the Allies, 26 million by the Central Powers), of which 10 million (or 14%) lost their lives. About 20 million more received some kind of wound – physical or otherwise -, and although they didn’t lose their life, they definitely lost a chance at live normally.
These are staggering numbers.
Lost in a new world
This was a ‘lost’ generation also because those who survived felt disoriented, wandering and directionless.
Educated when Victorian values dominated, these young people found that those values were largely outdated and therefore useless after the war. So they tended to act aimlessly, even recklessly, focusing more on the hedonistic accumulation of personal wealth rather than pursuing any higher ideal, which was also a reason why they were ‘lost’.
And they were ‘lost’ for words.
Men and women who had served in the war felt that nobody could understand their experience but those who had also been there. People who hadn’t been on the battlefield could never grasp how the war had stripped them and robbed them of some very essential part of being human beings.
But in the long run, this was a generation that ended up being far ahead of their time.
In the 1920s, this generation of young people danced on the edge of the volcano but also thought there were very few differences that counted. To them, people and what they felt was largely a common experience. In fact, they ended up being more open-minded than the generations that came of age in the troubled interwar years.
Men and women of the Great War: lost or found?
The Lost Generation‘s experience on the battlefields profoundly changed the way men and women perceived themselves and each other, and this created an environment – both during the war and immediately after – that allowed a new relationship to emerge.
During the First World War, for the first time, women took the place of men in production and leading roles. It created a positive change that allowed a revolution in women’s position inside their society that lasted all through the 1920s. It also created a new sense of equality inside the couple.
In most cases, this was a short-lived change – nationalism practically wiped it away -, but it did happen, and nothing could erase it from the collective memory.
Although less frequently acknowledged, the Great War changed the perception of masculinity too, if in more subtle, less visible ways.
In the trenches, men discovered a way to relate to each other that was based on compassion more than on machoism. They learned the importance of care, comfort and support, which society had taught them to look for in women. They now discovered they were capable of offering and receiving these feelings too.
This was also short-lived since, in the interwar years, the image of the warrior, the uncompromising man, became prevalent again. Yet this openness probably played a role in the first steps towards genre equality manifested in the 1920s.
The Atlantic – How the Great War Shaped the World
Cairn.info – Lost generations: The demographic impact of the Great War
Howstuffworks – How the Lost Generation Workes
ThoughtCo – The Lost Generation and the Writers Who Described Their World
The Irish Times – Young, fit and doomed: the lost generation of the first World War
Family Search – The Lost Generation: Who They Are and Where The Name Came From
Excellent information on these people who felt so lost and who could blame them. That many felt only people who lived through similar experiences could understand, makes perfect sense and reminds me of my mom. She lived through WW2 and felt that my dad could understand but not too many others could. They were 15 years apart and my mom was German and my dad Canadian but both experienced the horrors of war.
The more I look into it and the more I agree. War is always incomprehensible from outside (I believe). But this was maybe even more true for the people who experienced the industrial war. I’ve read passages of oral history that moved me and med me wonder how they coudl even suffer through it.
(here I am, allowed to read again! What a peculiar anomaly…)
Another wonderful post, JF, highlighting how displacement was not just from movement between countries, but emotional and mental as well. You have put a lot of thought and work into these articles and it is appreciated. YAM xx
Displacement. I believe you just used the perfect word.
(I’m so worried about the fact that some readers cannot reach my blog. I’ve already contacted my provider many times about it, and still it seems there are problems. I don’t knwo what to do anymore…)
I’ve heard it said that this generation enjoyed many freedoms and progressive opportunities (e.g., women attending university and working in greater numbers than previously) that seemed as if they’d last forever. Then the next generation was largely pushed back into social roles from a bygone era, as though all that progress never happened.
Don’t you find it ironic? Thsi generation probably had the means – and the emotional drive and experience – to make the world a lot better. And I believe they did, for a brief season.
And then everythign changed again.
I wonder if the suffering they went through gave them the will, but robbed them of the strength to carry the change to the very end.
The 20s were such a strange time, for many reasons. I am wondering if we are repeating that part of history right now, in some way.
The Multicolored Diary
I’m with you there. I too think the 1920s were ‘strange’ times. And I too think we are going through something similar now. I just hope the outcome will be different.