British political leader David Lloyd George stated (Haste, 1977) that every nation during the First World War conducted its military activities as if there were no limit to the number of young men who could be “thrown into the furnace to feed the flames of war.” The First World War was a perpetual, driving force that “shoveled warm human hearts and bodies by the millions into the furnace” (Gilbert, 2004).
Responding to an earlier Newsletter post in which this passage appeared, Professor Lawrence Besserman wrote:
"Thrown into the furnace"—horrific quotes, and I thought only the Muslims believed in death as victory. But the metaphor of men thrown into the furnace implies something we might be overlooking: bodies/lives as fuel to drive the engine of the state. An Industrial Age perversion that mirrors the ancient conception that the gods need human sacrifice to be satisfied? That's what the metaphor of "thrown into the furnace" evokes for me.
“Bodies as fuel to drive the engine of state:” the nation-state was a hungry god that required human bodies to say alive.
Analyzing the letters of French soldiers who fought in the First World War, John Horne (in Coetzee and Shevin-Coetzee, 1995) discovered that the theme of many of them was the idea of sacrifice as a source of redemption for the French nation. Contemplating the warriors who had fallen around him, French soldier J. Saleilles wondered whether their “gift of blood” was not the “supernatural source of the renewal of life which must be given to our country.”
What does it mean to say that the renewal of a nation’s life depends upon a “gift of blood”? This phrase links the soldier’s death to the more abundant life of one’s nation. When injury or death occurs on the battlefield, the blood contained within the body of the soldier flows out of him—and into the body politic. The body and blood of the soldier fuels or regenerates the nation.
Writing in 1916, P. H. Pearse (in Kamenka, 1973)—founder of the Irish Revolutionary movement—observed with pleasure the carnage of the First World War:
The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth. It is good for the world to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this—the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.
The world, according to Pearse, needed to be warmed with the “red wine of the battlefield.” The outflowing of blood—millions of lives “given gladly for love of country”—constituted a form of nourishment for the nation-state.
It has been said that “individual must die so that the nation might live.” During the First World War, the bodies of soldiers were fed into the jaws of battle under the assumption that the “life” of the nation was more significant than the lives of human beings. The body politic consumed human bodies, giving rise to the reality of the nation.