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.

clipping Earl died WWI




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.



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.


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.


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.


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.

Unclesamby cafepress

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?



My (Nomadic) Writing Life – and various day jobs

I wanted to write by the time I reached middle school.  Even before that I was a story teller, making up tales for my little brother.  When I was 12 I wrote my first short story, a ghost story.  I sent it off to a girls’ magazine and didn’t tell anyone in spite of my pride, or perhaps because of it – I didn’t want anyone to make fun of my aspirations.

Being able to write lucid essays in high school and college, I suspect made me look smarter than I was.  In fact I repeatedly got A’s in Geochemistry even though I didn’t understand much of it.  I listened carefully when Prof. X repeated anything or otherwise indicated that a phrase or equation was important and regurgitated the verbiage back on exams. (I shouldn’t tell you this. I’m setting a bad example and they could revoke my geology degree!)


carretas on beach in Costa Rica


I took a creative writing course by correspondence when I lived in Costa Rica.  That may have been the first time I heard “write what you know.”  I was trying to write about themes and settings from well known books.  Really would anyone want to read about my life in Puerto Limon?  Could anyone relate to the mold growing in my carpet, the woman who removed sand from my toddler’s eye by licking it off his eyeball with her tongue, the landslides that closed both the road and the railroad for months during the rainy season or my two-hour siesta-lunches which I spent body surfing before rushing back to resume teaching my bilingual class to a group of third graders*?

(*Maria Luisa, Raul, Brian, et al my third graders – you are all grown up now.  If you happen to read this: I remember you fondly and hope your lives are turning out nicely.)


At my next job, as an assistant hydrologist in New Zealand, I discovered that my colleagues didn’t like to write (what?) and I offered to write their reports for them.  My boss** soon had me writing and researching the potential for gold in Otago in the South Island, because there were tentative  plans to flood an area for a new dam.


that’s me in front of an old Gold Dredge

  (**Mr. Owen Borlase – I didn’t know how lucky I was to have a boss who valued his employees.  Thank you for your support!)

In the evenings I kept a journal and wrote stories – just for myself and all long since discarded.   I tried to continue this pattern after we moved to the States and my third (or was it my 4th ?) job as a hydrogeologic consultant.  My “big break” came when my boss*** (the same one who once caressed my bum when I bent over a lower shelf for a report) called me into his office to tell me that he was giving my biggest client to an engineer (engineers were “superior” to geologists in the consulting world – at least if your boss was one).  In fact it was the largest account our office had and I was rightly proud that it was mine.  I told him if so, I would have to give my notice – which I did the next day after he said, “Now, now Cinda, don’t be difficult. You can assist him.  You’re such nice girl and we all like you. ”  (I was an 36 year old “girl” with two adolescents at home by now – and about to be downgraded.)

(*** Mr. Watkins – shame on you, on more than one count.)


The reason I say this was a “ break” is that that job was stressful with long hours, no appreciation – and little time for writing.  Writing had become regulated to vacations. So I started consulting on my own and worked the same long hours to run a business, but I was in control of my time with less stress, more pride.  There were periods when work was slow – but “What me worry?” – there was a cash flow problem, but I could write. Eventually I had all the work I wanted and had to turn down clients.  A MBA friend pointed out that in the classic supply-demand situation, I could start charging more ….and perhaps working less (OK that part was my idea, not hers).  As the possibility of early “retirement” materialized (or should I say blossomed?) I became very picky about clients. I was always too busy to schedule jerks.  I worked half-time, taking only interesting jobs that paid well – and the rest of the time I began writing in earnest.  Over the years I pretty much priced myself out of the consulting business.  You may think me spoiled, but believe me I paid my dues to get to this point!

Here I am a few short stories and an awarding winning (I have to plug it don’t I?) novel later.  What excuse do I have not to get the next one down on paper? (Can I ever retire?)

Happiness around the World

“Human beings come equipped with the pursuit of happiness impulse1” … the urge to find lusher land, a better job, more security is essentially part of the US Declaration of Independence.  Americans work long hours and suffer mood and anxiety disorders in spite of the relative wealth and social well-being compared to other countries; in the last 40 years only a third describe themselves as very happy.

A World Happiness Report published by Columbia University shows stark contradictions. The U.S. ranked 23rd out of a 50-nation survey – far behind these countries :

#1 Iceland  (!)

N LIghts Iceland 1032

N. lights in Iceland ( by Dreamstime)

#2 New Zealand and

#3 Denmark …

..and trailing Malaysia, Tanzania and Vietnam”.


(photo by Dreamstime)

Iceland has long hard winters and a crippled economy and yet strong social networks and a sense of community.

New Zealand farmer

New Zealand farmer

Australians also have a tight sense of community in spite of the widening gap vs. rich and poor.  Canadians score high and Ireland reports high levels of cheer in spite of the poor economy.  War torn Afghanistan has 3 times as many people reporting they are happy than those who are not. Even Finland, once the suicide capital of the world, has a high level of people saying they are happy.


Guatemala (photo by K Horner)

Costa Rica is “up there” (no surprise, right?). Guatemala has endured decades of war, violence and poverty and yet its people are among the sunniest in the world.  Likewise Brazil, in spite of high levels of violence, their people (notably the women) are among the happiest in the world. Panama comes in near the top as well even though a third of the population lives below the poverty line.  Mexicans also boast high levels of happiness in spite of the drug wars.  Ditto Colombia. From my own experience I’d say Latinos have a capacity to enjoy themselves in spite of adversity.  People may work hard and even those who exist near the poverty level, party and laugh with friends and family come the weekend.


On the other side of the scale falls Singapore with the world’s least optimistic population, although they have one of the highest per capita GDPs.  China has actually experienced a decrease in satisfaction in conjunction with their economic boom. Botswana is one of the saddest nations with low levels of life expectancy (yet one of the higher ranked sub-Saharan countries economically). That many of the sub-Saharan Africa countries score low is not surprising.  Can we even discuss happiness in countries where basic human needs for food and shelter and security, are not met for a large part of the population?

Health, wealth (or at least freedom from debt or poverty) and happiness are intertwined.  Women report being happier than men, but this does not apply in less developed countries or those with “poor gender equality”.

What else contributes to happiness? 

april 11 (2yrs old)_9392


Pets, exercise, yoga, meditation; acts of kindness (happy people are generous and volunteers are more satisfied with their lives); education; faith; and of course a sense of community and supportive friends or close family ties.

family at Stratfrd_0745ps

Multi-generational family dinner

Ralph Waldo Emerson sums it up:

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and to endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded. “

1.Time magazine July, 2013 article on happiness.

What do you think?  Is happiness cultural, circumstantial or genetic?