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 of the end. 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 us to preserve his memory. (Wouldn’t he be surprised to know people would be reading about him 100 yrs. later?) I might have met him in my own youth if he’d lived.
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 grave site – 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.
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.
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.
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 typical: Richard was killed in France; Thomas decorated for bravery, returned and became a Member of Parliament; Stuart spent the rest of his life in psychiatric care as a result of the trauma. 20% of the 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.
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.
(If you’ve been following me for a time this post may look familiar. I am republishing for the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI for Veterans Day)
In Flanders Fields (excerpt)
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) Canadian Army
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow, between 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?
Always moving insights about things I wouldn’t normally run into. But, unlike a previous commentator, I’d have to say we’re making progress on the war front. Far fewer people perish that way than in past centuries. The reluctance of many countries to “get involved” now in current conflicts I think stems from some having had enough. It’s a journey, part of which is influenced by the fact humans haven’t learned how to build a sustainable economic model that isn’t dependent on war to some extent. There’s a temptation to consciously or unconsciously use the economic boost as an excuse. But, I think we’re getting past that.
Thanks for a positive view point Sandra. I get discouraged reading the news but I like to think the human race is evolving into smarter beings able to live in harmony.
I read All Quiet On The Western Front and got a strong sense of the horrors and the pointlessness of trench warfare from the perspective of a young German soldier. I saw the movie Gallipolli in college. It was very moving. I suspect Terry Pratchett’s character Lord Rust is based on the British commanders of this period.
Someone said that P.G. Wodehouse characters like Bertie Wooster and his pals represented of a generation of young men that was essentially wiped out by WWI.
Thanks for bringing that up. I have not read All Quiet On The Western Front and should put it on my to read list. (Although I think I need a break from thinking about wars – it is all too depressing.)
I am impressed that you have written this tribute to granddad’s brother Earl Crabbe who died in Flanders Field during WWI. We have had a major commemoration of WWI at the National Cathedral in the past few months in which our Allies came in military dress and the marine band played. It was very impressive. What a waste of life in a senseless war.
I remember Dad speaking of Uncle Earl Crabbe and I believe that there was another brother who also died there. I tried to find them in the expatriate military cemetery on-line but was unsuccessful. I don’t imagine the bodies were returned to Ohio.
Thank you for turninig me on to “Birdsong”.
My pleasure – that’s nice to hear!
Thank you, Cinda, for posting such an important article. Reminding us that we, in truth, seem to have not moved the needle very far in terms of finding better solutions to our international arguments and offenses. It’s gut wrenching to see or be a part of the continued fighting within our world.
I’m sure your great uncle would feel honored to know you remember him still and hold his sacrifice in high esteem. I do too.
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Shelley – Thank you for reading and leaving insightful comments.
Very interesting, Cinda – I just blogged about the ceramic poppies being “planted” in the moat surrounding the Tower of London to honor the WWI veterans but I didn’t realize it was because of the anniversary. My grandfather was mustard gassed in the Great War – suffered digestive problems the rest of his life.
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I guess the Great War has always been remembered more in Europe than in the usa – esp. no doubt France, Belgium and Germany.
Your poor grandfather – gassed; I hadn’t thought about the permanent damage that might do.