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An analysis of Paul Fussell’s ‘Troglodyte World’

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Life in a World War One trench would have been far more hellish than any other experience in previous times. In those days, little thought would have been given to the men fighting the battles; instead it went into the battle plans. In theory, these battle plans would have been successful, but with variables such as troop morale, battlefield conditions, weather, and enemy advances, in practice they had a high failure rate. No commander or general could have accurately planned an attack without taking into account the battle conditions, and allowing leeway for an enemy advance. Unfortunately, the men in commanding positions rarely (if at all) saw the actual conditions of fighting, and this resulted in the loss of many lives. An author by the name of Paul Fussell wrote a chapter in his book ‘The Great War and Modern Memory’ entitled ‘The Troglodyte World’. This refers to the real life experiences of soldiers living and fighting in the trenches, and uses various primary sources to validate his findings.

Throughout the first few pages of ‘The Troglodyte World’, Fussell is describing the trenches, as the soldiers saw them during the 1914-1918 time period. He (through the tales of others) sees the trenches as dark, dank, poorly built/maintained holes in the ground in which soldiers were forced to fight in for days on end. This is where he compares the soldiers to troglodytes – cave dwelling creatures. These soldiers would endure days on end of almost dehumanizing war, and when they were not fighting, they would return to their ‘caves’, thus becoming troglodytes. The phrase ‘troglodyte world’ simply refers to life as a whole for a soldier fighting (mainly on the allied side, German trenches were exceptions) in the trenches on the Western Front.

Whilst describing the troglodytic nature of the allied troops, Fussell also draws upon the fact that the German trenches were rather elaborate and efficient in comparison to the British trenches. A British soldier, George Coppard, gives a statement comparing the German trenches, which were often 30 feet deep and had such luxuries as bunk beds and electric light, to the British ‘lousy scratch holes’. This means that Fussell is taking a neutral perspective for this chapter, describing the differences between both sides’ trenches, and using either side’s commentaries on the state of the other’s trenches.

Fussell’s main technique for coming to conclusions is through the primary sources he has included within the chapter. By constantly referring to these eyewitness accounts, Fussell reinforces that this is a chapter focusing on the more humanitarian issues associated with the war, not just dates and statistical information. In other words, he is giving the battles and trench life in general a ‘face’.

Fussell does not just use first hand accounts; he also refers to poetry as a primary source. Although poetry isn’t as ‘iron-clad’ as a first hand account, it is useful in its description of what is going on, albeit abstract. Poetry can be used as evidence to back up other facts and conclusions that the author is trying to make. Poetry also conveys the emotions and feelings at the time of the war. It gives the perspective of one who is usually an outsider to such atrocities, and their first impressions of it. Fussell uses various poets’ works to provide the audience with a wider spectrum of the sentiment at the time.

‘The Troglodyte World’ could be used as either a primary source or a secondary source. One could use the sources contained within as primary, and then use Fussell’s commentary on the situation as a secondary source. It is clearly evident that Fussell has accumulated all these sources for a specific reason – his book can be referred to as a veritable ‘tome’ of information for research, providing a generally neutral commentary on the War, as well as giving examples of the sentiment of each side towards one another.

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