Most of the WWI veterans I met in those days were only in their fifties or sixties, and included relatives and family friends. I remember seeing our milkman (for you youngsters, he was the man who delivered fresh milk to our house every few days) marching in our town's Memorial Day parade. When I pointed him out to my mom, she said, "Yes, he was quite a hero and received several medals for bravery." I never again thought of him as "just the milkman."
Those veterans were impressive men and I was a bit in awe of them. I suspect this had something to do with the stories I'd heard about life and death in the trenches as well as the air war waged by those early air aces in their biplanes. It generated within me an odd mixture of horror and romance. I believe, too, I was influenced by my father who, although he served during World War Two, often spoke of the earlier war's great impact on our world. The historian, Edmund Taylor, believed much the same when he wrote:
“The First World War killed fewer victims than the Second World War, destroyed fewer buildings, and uprooted millions instead of tens of millions – but in many ways it left even deeper scars both on the mind and on the map of Europe. The old world never recovered from the shock.”
Among the WWI veterans I knew as a child my favorite was my Uncle Bill, my mother's older brother. He had served in the Navy during the war and for a time in France immediately after the war. Although I didn't get to see Uncle Bill too often -- he lived 50 miles away and died when I was just 14 -- I do remember him well. He was a lifelong bachelor and drove a really cool red 1955 Cadilac convertible; and he also had some very neat souvenirs from his WWI Navy days, including one of those spiked German helmets or "picklehuabe". According to Uncle Bill a US Marine had given him the helmet as a reward for rescuing him when he fell overboard in some French harbor after a night of celebratory revelry in late 1918.
|British troops going "over the top" - 1st day of the Somme|
Unlike my uncle, who always had a story to tell, many of those who actually fought in the trenches said little about their wartime experiences. But almost every veteran who survived the horrors of WWI called that conflict "The Great War" in an attempt, I suppose, to distinguish it from all previous wars. It was, of course, a very stupid war, brought on by an attack of global insanity that particularly afflicted the "best and brightest" of their time.
When the guns of August roared 100 years ago, few expected the war to last long. That very month Kaiser Wilhelm II promised his troops, "You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees." Sadly it took several autumns before the surviving soldiers returned to their families. And far too many never made it home. Compare the Kaiser's capricious comment with the observation made after almost fours years of war by a young private immediately after the Battle of Passchendaele in January 1918:
"There was not a sign of life of any sort. Not a tree, save for a few dead stumps which looked strange in the moonlight. Not a bird, not even a rat or a blade of grass. Nature was as dead as those Canadians whose bodies remained where they had fallen the previous autumn. Death was written large everywhere."
|Sir Douglas Haig|
"The nation must be taught to bear losses. No amount of skill on the part of the higher commanders, no training, however good, on the part of the officers and men, no superiority of arms and ammunition, however great, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men’s lives. The nation must be prepared to see heavy casualty lists."Haig wrote this on the eve of that battle, a four-month disaster that resulted in over one million men killed or wounded and led to an Allied gain of only ten miles of French countryside. Haig, an unimaginative and pigheaded man who had little understanding of modern warfare, was perhaps the war's most incompetent military commander. As Winston Churchill would later write, Haig "wore down alike the manhood and the guns of the British army almost to destruction." I'm reminded of the comment by an anonymous German soldier who described the British troops as “lions led by donkeys" -- a tribute to the bravery of the individual soldier, but a condemnation of his leaders.
Some contemporaries we're remarkably naive. In 1912, just two years before the war, Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio, made the following prediction: "The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.” Well, we've moved through the wireless era, through the television era, into the internet era and war is more destructive than ever. Just two years later, as the war began, H. G. Wells actually believed it would cure humanity of its warlike ways. Apparently overcome by an attack of inexplicable optimism, Wells called it, "The war that will end war." It would of course do no such thing. Wells should have known this, but his progressive ideology prohibited him from accepting that war was just another consequence of our fallen human nature. Indeed just as Jesus assured us that "you always have the poor with you," He also warned us that at the "end of the age" we "will hear of wars and rumors of wars...For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom..." I suppose it's safe to say that war won't end until we end.
Others had convinced themselves that out of this war good would come. On April 2, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson requested a declaration of war against Germany, he told the joint session of Congress that "The world must be made safe for democracy." How ironic that the conclusion of the war, less than two years later, would lead to the spread not of democracy but of totalitarianism throughout Europe and much of Asia.
|US WWI Cemetery at Chateau Thierre, France|
The following video on the Battle of the Somme will give you a good sense of what it was like to live and die in trench warfare.It's an hour long but well worth viewing if you have any interest in World War One.
Two fairly recent books on the war, one on its opening days and another on its final hours, are well worth reading: Europe's Last Summer by David Fromkin and Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour by Joseph E. Persico. Because of the centennial, I expect the next few years will bring the publication of many more books on every aspect of the war.