And The World Broke Into Pieces: An Appreciation of Armistice Day and WWI Veterans

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

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!

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

Lt. Colonel John McCrae

Composed May 3, 1915 during the 2nd battle of Ypres (Belgium)

 

The 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th Month, 1918. An Armistice came into effect ending WWI, the deadliest war the world had seen up to that point. 8.5 Million men lay dead, strewn across trenches and battlefields across Europe[1]. A war that had seen vast innovations in artillery and weapons rained down devastation upon all sides. Gas attacks scarred and killed many. Politicians vowed that there would never be another war like this.

Armistice day was first celebrated in the United States in 1919 and became a National Holiday in 1938. In 1954, President Eisenhower changed formally changed Armistice Day to Veterans day, to celebrate all veterans. [2]

I honor our veterans, now and always. But, as a very dear friend and WWII Veteran, a winner of the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme and French Legion of Honor, expressed to me every time veteran’s day rolled around, it was disappointing how the sacrifices of the men who fought in WWI were often forgotten.[3]

The horror of the first world war was documented in poems, in books, in drawings and sculpture. In its wake, the great war left behind an entire generation of lost men. Scarred by what they had seen, jaded by their experiences. As Erich Maria Remarque stated in All Quiet on the Western Front,

“For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity…to the future… in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs… The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.[4]

The men of the great war were left bitter about the teachers, parents and politicians who had told them all that it was glorious to fight and die for their country. These elders were wrong, the young men had discovered. Gas attacks, days in wet and filthy trenches and the inevitability of death had quickly stripped these men of the idealism that these elders had instilled. They could only trust themselves.

I first saw the above picture, “Shock Troops Advance Under Gas” by Otto Dix, during the course of my studies in grad school. I remember staring at this picture, entranced by everything about it. To me, it says everything about WWI.  The gas masks hide the soldiers faces and make them almost inhuman. The barbed wire and trench fortifications surround the soldiers. Gas permeates the air. What awaits the opposing soldiers whose point of view this is from? It’s dark, it’s scary and the ominous specter of death fills the picture. Its haunting. Years later it still mesmerizes me.

The horror and experiences of those who fought in the first world war are better explained by those who experienced it themselves rather than me. If you haven’t read Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger or All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque you truly need to. Neither is a long read but the impact they have is tremendous. My copies are well-worn, full of notations and folded pages. The words of these authors have stuck with me and I am continually drawn back to them.

We are quickly approaching the 100th anniversary of the end of the great war. The veterans who fought through gas attacks, who languished in mud filled trenches during the spring and shivered underneath thin uniforms in those same trenches during the winter deserve more of our appreciation and respect. Their sacrifices demand recognition and remembrance, and not just remembrance in the form of an unkempt memorial in the center of town.  This Veterans Day, I encourage you to keep them in your thoughts as we acknowledge the sacrifices and contributions that veterans have made for this country.

Today, on the very spot where the horrific fighting at Verdun took place, lies the Douaumont Ossuary. It houses the bones of more than 130,000 French and German soldiers who fell during the course of the battle. So many fell, in fact, that at the end of the war it proved impossible to identify the remains or nationality of the men who still lay strewn across the battlefield[5]. So, they lay together. French next to German, finally at peace. Because when you get down to it, are not all our bones the same?

 

To Bob, my dearest WWII hero, who would’ve appreciated this blog more than anyone. I haven’t stopped looking for that French Flag of yours. You are still terribly missed.

Further Reading

The Douaumont National Necropolis and Ossuary

Otto Dix “Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor”

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger

 

[1] “WWI Killed, Wounded and Missing” Encyclopedia Britannica. October 2017 https://www.britannica.com/event/World-War-I/Killed-wounded-and-missing Accessed October 16, 2017.

[2] History.com Staff “Veterans Day Facts.” A+E Networks. 2009. http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/veterans-day-facts Accessed October 16, 2017.

[3] I have previously written a blog on the heroism of this very dear friend entitled “An American Behind German Lines”. Please give the blog a read if you haven’t already read it. (linked above)

[4] Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Ballantine Books, 1987.

[5] “The Douaumont National Necropolis and Ossuary” French Ministre des Armees. http://www.cheminsdememoire.gouv.fr/en/douaumont-national-necropolis-and-ossuary Accessed October 17, 2017

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