Tuesday, July 22, 2014

World War One

2014 marks one hundred years since World War One began.  It was called “the war to end all wars”, which of course it wasn't since it was followed by World War Two and a string of other disasters. Still, this first worldwide war remains a horror story unmatched in the saga of mankind. As we all know now, wars truly are hell for those who have to fight them, for those who lose the men and women who fight them, and for the communities with their most precious asset, the human resource of energy, creative juices and dreams for tomorrow, that will be forever lost as well.

As a sometime military historian (junior grade, to be sure) this century anniversary prompted me to take a very close look at the years from 1914 to 1918. That time was so horrific that my extensive reading of it was exhausting. To have actually been on the ground in the combat situations of trench warfare remains incomprehensible to modern minds. Years back I was fortunate in having face-to-face conversations with veterans of that war. Saying that I regret not having more such opportunities is to state the obvious. Now of course such meetings are impossible.

The next best thing in educating and informing yourself of that terrible history is to read the firsthand memories of those who were there in the fighting.  Here we owe a huge debt to the historian Lyn Macdonald. She had the foresight two decades ago to interview dozens of British WWI soldiers while they were still with us. I recommend two of her books “1915, The Death of Innocence” and “Somme. The first gives you an idea of what civilization was like as it transitioned to sheer madness. Somme takes you through the campaign that bled dry the flower of youth of the British Empire and scarred the souls of its people to this very day. In 2014 we are rightly outraged over a single death. Just imagine a casualty list of 60,000 men being killed or seriously wounded in a single day of that fighting!

Yes, I do think that parents should have some awareness of those terrible times so that their children and their children's children are not totally oblivious to the fact that World War One changed civilization forever.  What was more or less the same for hundreds of years was never to be that way again.

The literature on World War One is legion.  The average reader cannot take it all in. The challenge is to select a few books such as these two I've mentioned by Lyn Macdonald, and perhaps include the classic “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer” by Siegfried Sassoon, then take it from there. Or not.

Each reader will form his or her own opinion after reading these materials.  Mine is the terrible dehumanization that resulted from weeks and months of living in muddy knee-deep filth, wet and shivering, scared to death while awaiting whistles to go over the top. More often than not it was the last sound many ever heard.  After one big battle a staff officer in well-polished boots drove up in a staff car close as possible to the battlefield of a place called Passchendaele. Staring at the muddy horror he sobbingly cried: “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?'”

The answer was “Yes”. And they did it time and again.

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