Grim Thoughts on the Origins of Veterans Day: Voices From WWI

Posted on November 11, 2013

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Note from Lila:  we have been fighting in Afghanistan for twelve years now, with ever less and less mention of it in the press.  It is our latest Forgotten War, even as it is still ongoing.  For all of the casualties of Iraq and Afghanistan, see “The Faces of the Fallen” at The Washington Post (updated at least weekly).

In honor of our veterans and those still giving their all in a war largely dismissed from the minds of their own fellow citizens, I’m re-running last year’s thoughts on Veterans Day.  I eagerly await the day that we can all see a headline announcing that fighting is over in Afghanistan.

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It used to be called Armistice Day.  At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the Great War officially ended.

It was the first war to involve all of the great powers of the Earth aligned against each other; it was the first industrialized war; the first war to see air-to-air combat; to see the implementation of the artillery barrage; to see the use of armored tanks; to see the use of poison gas; to see the flamethrower.  It was the First World War, that crucible of hellish invention with destruction as its great aim.  We certainly do come up with endlessly ingenious ways to wipe each other out.

Here is what my Great-Grandfather, then a US Army Colonel, wrote of his first impressions of trench warfare upon his arrival in France, August 1917:

All the region was as bare of vegetation as the palm of your hand.  Forests and villages had been swept away by artillery bombardments which had been practically continuous for the past three years…  I observed a battery of field artillery in position for firing with its ammunition piled like cordwood beside the guns… I was shown through all the dugouts… suddenly there came a terrifying explosion.  The place shook as from the eruption of a volcano under our feet.  We were showered with pebbles and dirt.  The electric lights, swaying as if swept by a strong wind, went out, leaving us in pitch darkness… a German shell had struck the ammunition dump nearest the main entrance and exploded the whole dump.  Thirteen cannoneers… were burned to death… We were subjected to a gas attack at about midnight…

The artillery preparation had been going on for three days, gradually increasing in intensity of fire.  It had one day more to go and was designed to reach its maximum intensity at the moment of the jump-off at 4:40 AM, August 20 – just 24 hours hence.  The flash of the guns and the bursting of the shells lit up the region like day… Shells were falling everywhere… The noise was deafening….

We ran.  Beyond the ridge we got down into the jump-off trench.  The rain was now coming down in sheets.  The trench was lined with men plastered against the front wall, waiting for zero hour…  There we were in the crowded trench, pitch dark, the rain blinding us, zero hour approaching, and the cannonading making us deaf!…

The Colonel took a look into the periscope set up near his dugout… I was disappointed at the dim, uncertain panorama that met my gaze… we loitered around in the rain, mud, and hurricane of screaming, bursting shells overhead….  The “battle” to me appeared a farce.  I felt that we could fight like this for 20 years and accomplish but little….

Several days later Verdier sent me a very small snapshot of three German prisoners.  On the back of the picture was written, “German officers captured the 20th of August in front of Beaumont,” and I thought as I gazed upon it, what a trophy to hold as recompense for the expenditure of forty million dollars’ worth* of ammunition in preparation fire!”

*This would be nearly a half-billion in 2013 dollars.

His observations were correct.  Battles went on for months at a time, at enormous cost in lives, infrastructure, and materials, only to advance a few yards on one side or the other.  At Verdun, more than 70,000 men died per month for ten months, fighting over one patch of earth.  Survivors could barely describe it; the word “hell” was too meaningless.

One would have thought, after seeing the shell-shocked and horribly disfigured veterans of the Great War, that the world might have done a better job of working out their issues, but it was not to be.  I suspect it will never be.  Dividing ourselves into “us” and “them,” and then hacking away at each other, is too ingrained in our human nature.  We are , frankly, too much like fancy big-brained chimps, just smart enough to get ourselves into a lot of trouble, but lacking the long-range vision to get out of it – or to avoid it altogether.

And so we go on to make our guns bigger, longer-range, more deadly.  We have studied the weaponization of pathogens and concocted deadlier chemicals than the mere chlorine and mustard gas of the First World War.  We harnessed the atom for the express purpose of using its energy as a weapon.  We have sonic weapons, directed-energy weapons, remote-controlled weapons.   In the great “us vs. them” race, there is an enormous drive to stay one step ahead of “them.”  And with every new surge ahead in our technological terrors, we congratulate ourselves on our superiority and convince ourselves that this time, we’ll make quick work of the enemy and be home by Christmas.

And then, to our unending surprise, it never turns out that way.  It turns out  like the experience of Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” who wrote the following in an addendum to his memoir not too long before his death in 1918:

Von Richthofen with his dog, Moritz

The battle now taking place on all Fronts has become awfully serious; there is nothing left of the “lively, merry war,” as our deeds were called in the beginning.  Now we must fight off despair and arm ourselves so that the enemy will not penetrate our country.  I now have the gravest feeling that people have been exposed to quite another Richthofen than I really am.  When I read my book, I smile at the insolence of it.  I now no longer possess such an insolent spirit.  It is not because I’m afraid, though one day death may be hard on my heels; no, it’s not for that reason, although I think enough about it….  I am in wretched spirits after every aerial battle.  But that no doubt is an aftereffect of my head wound.  When I set foot on the ground again at my airfield after a flight, I go to my quarters and do not want to see anyone or hear anything.  I think of this war as it really is, not as the people at home imagine, with a Hoorah! and a roar.  It is very serious, very grim…

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