This does not fall under the usual themes for this blog but, I’m writing to honor those who fought in WWI because this year marks the 100th anniversary. All wars are horrible, but what brought it to life for me were the highly acclaimed Australian movie Gallipoli (back in the 1980’s), the novel Birdsong and discovering my own grandfather’s brother had been killed in France shortly after his 19th birthday.
My great uncle Earl – one of the millions of young men who never got to marry or enjoy his youth – or the life he should have had. He left no direct descendants – he has only me to preserve his memory. (Wouldn’t he be surprised, 100 yrs. ago, to know people would be reading about him today?) I might have met him in my own youth had he not been killed.
Many puzzle still as to why all the world’s great economic powers were drawn into this war over an assassination. But the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was just the trigger. Once the Austro- Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, the international alliances (pledged to defend each other) fell into place like a line of dominos.
Once I happened by chance, to be walking through the countryside near the German-French border and I noticed a long, straight ditch that was grown over and partially filled in. With a jolt I realized it was a World War I trench. On that spot, and in the whole area, so many young men died on both sides. I will never forget the eerie sensation – more disconcerting than any other gravesite – it was hallowed ground. It began to thunder and I could almost imagine the fear of hearing the shells overhead.
Sebastian Faulks’ novel, Birdsong, introduced me to a wonderful writer – and the incalculable suffering during WW I. It starts out with a love story in Amiens, France where Stephen, the English protagonist, will return to fight – and a surreal existence in the trenches. From there we see lives ruined even among the survivors.
In spite of the horrors, it is a magnificent book. After years on the bombed out fields destroyed of all vegetation, Stephen marvels to hear the songs of birds again, when the war is finally over. I also don’t normally read books about war with many battle scenes, but once I started reading this one, I couldn’t put it down.
Gallipoli, a narrow peninsula in northwestern Turkey was the site of the disastrous defeat of the allies, due to poor planning, leadership and insufficient artillery.
The campaign is often considered as marking the birth of national consciousness in Australia and New Zealand, where many felt the ANZAC soldiers had been used as “cannon fodder.” Allegiance to the British Empire was now questioned –- this occurred in Canada as well. Most of the surviving soldiers were then sent to the nightmare in France.
Another recruiting poster showed a man in uniform with a beauty on either arm. Thus were patriotic young men lured into the war.
Constant fear, noise, mud, barbed wire, cold with no end in sight was the daily fare for men who lived in the damp trenches, which occasionally flooded. Men died on the battlefield but many, who would have lived with modern medicine, died of their wounds from delayed treatment and gangrene. After a year or more, the men felt forgotten and sacrificed; enlisted men hardly ever got much leave (although officially they were due a week every four months). They were in bitter despair at best, crazed at worse. Almost all entered an altered mental state of numbness.
The USA entered the war in 1917, when spies discovered a message from Germany to the Mexican government, promising them Texas and New Mexico if they sided with Germany in the war. When the Americans arrived they brought fresh hope to the allied troops. In France they were welcomed with open arms; too young to drink at home they developed a taste for French wine, while the French developed a taste for jazz, thanks to the African-American troops.
Living in New Zealand in the 1980’s made me aware of the part the “colonials” played. I learned that 40% of the New Zealand troops were wounded and 19% never came home. The experience of Premier Seddon’s three sons was rather typical: Richard was killed in France; Thomas was decorated for bravery, returned and became a Member of Parliament; the youngest son Stuart spent the rest of his life in psychiatric care as a result of the trauma he had experienced. About a fifth of the returning men had serious health or mental problems and many more “could not or would not relate their experiences – it was so hellish in relation to civilian life they could not explain it.”
Driving through the country, one is struck by hundreds of war memorials, found in towns small and large they reflect the communal grieving and the profound effect these casualties had. Following World War II and Vietnam there was little interest in WWI, yet there seems to be a greater awareness of the conflict in the recent decades.
In Flanders Fields (excerpt)
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) Canadian Army
In Flanders Fields …. the crosses row on row….
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields…(where poppies grow).
Have books, movies or some personal experience made a war seem more real than the history books to you?