Centennial of World War I 1914-1918 – Effects on Personal Lives

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.

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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.

 

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Canadian soldiers going over a trench.

 

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.

owen.cholerton.oghttp://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/the-gallipoli-campaign/introduction

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.

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Aussie recruiting poster needs no comment.

 

 

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.

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Dedication of National War Memorial Carillon, Wellington, New Zealand 1932

 

Inglewood war-memorial

 

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.

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This is the original Uncle Sam recruiting poster. (Cafepress.org)

 

(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?

 

 

El Libertador: Simon Bolivar (the movie)

I saw an interesting movie the other night. “El Libertador” (The Liberator) is about Simon Bolivar (played by Édgar Ramírez, who also appeared in Zero Dark Thirty). The movie is a great primer for those unfamiliar with this crucial bit of South American history and the director managed to keep this epic story to 2-hours in length.

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Few people outside of Latin America are familiar with this fascinating leader, who led the revolution for independence from Spain in the early 1800’s and united Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia into the country of Gran Colombia. The lush sets stand in contrast to the tyranny of the Spanish empire: massacring the indigenous, enslaving Africans, and crushing those opposed to colonization.

Simon Bolivar

Simon Bolivar

 

Born into a wealthy family, Bolívar might have been immune to such injustices, but orphaned at an early age he was raised by a slave he called “mother” and tutored by a socialist-leaning teacher. Hence he bonded and sympathized with people of different classes and ideas – an extraordinary trait in an aristocratic land holder at the turn of the 19th century.

 

Edgar Ramirez in title role

Edgar Ramirez stars as Simon Bolivar.

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Maria Valverde stars as the love of his life

 

The loss of his young  wife Maria Teresa, to yellow fever, is the turning point in his life. (The love scenes are minor but beautiful.)  He finds his cause in the fight for freedom, equality and dignity for all and becomes a skillful general and inspired leader.

 

His heroic military campaigns covered tens of thousands of miles of difficult territory, including jungles and the snowy Andes Mountains. (Confession – I rented this on Netflix and fast-forwarded through the many battle scenes.)

 

A man of the people

A man of the people

Bolivar finances the war using his own wealth, with the support of British businessmen, and galvanizes the multiple races, tribes and neighboring states around the idea of fighting for a united sovereign country.  He freed the slaves in 1816 and the Republica de Gran Colombia (the territory previously called Nueva Granada) was formed in 1820 with Bolivar as president. He continued the fight in Peru and Bolivia for the next four to five years before they too won independence and joined the republic .

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Bolivar merged the vice-royalties (states) into the  Republica de Gran Colombia

 

Sadly internal divisions sparked dissent throughout the nation as different leaders fought for power and eventually the republic was divided into separate states. Bolivar died in 1830, officially of tuberculosis, although the movie suggests a controversial assassination. Parks and plazas around the world, and especially in Latin America, are named in his honor (as well as the currency of Venezuela and Bolivia).

The movie is in English and Spanish (and occasionally French) with English subtitles. The colonial sets and cinematography are wonderful. It made the shortlist of best foreign language film category of the Academy Awards this year. Produced in collaboration with Venezuelan and Spanish companies and given a majestic score composed by Gustavo Dudamel of the LA Philharmonic. See this film if you like sweeping, romantic movies or want to learn some history crucial to South America.

Were you familiar with Simon Bolivar’s story before reading this? (His-tory).  If so, are you from Latin America?