Print Story A moment of silence, please
By aphrael (Sun Nov 10, 2013 at 06:42:32 PM EST) (all tags)

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.

People ask me, sometimes, why the memory of the first world war is so much more important to me than the memory of the second world war. After all, the Second World War killed more people, right? There's something to that, and yet ... world war two was the nightmare that everyone saw coming and yet could not prevent, while world war one was the unexpected tragedy that appeared from out of nowhere and tore down the world.

The early days of the twentieth century were days of peace. Three generations had passed since the end of the last general European war. There had been side skirmishes, sure - but they were off on the periphery, or in the colonies. There'd been two brief wars in mainland Europe itself, associated with the consolidation of Germany and Italy; but they'd killed very few, and had been largely forgotten. So used to peace were the people of the time that it was commonly believed that war had become impossible; the economies of the world were so interdependant that the great powers could never fight with each other, right? That would be too expensive. Too .. disruptive.


In England, more than a quarter of the fighting age male population was killed. The same for Austria-Hungary. In Germany and France, it was more than a third.

I write about this every year, and I still can't wrap my mind around the numbers. I can read them, I can intellectually know what they are, but it's hard to wrap my head around it emotionally: growing up in a world where war is believed to be inconceivable, and reaching the age of 40 having lived through an apocalypse where war killed more than a quarter of the men I went to school with?

Other comparisons don't help. In four years, the United Kingdom itself (not the outlying areas) lost as many people as the entire city of San Jose, California has today. Germany lost a little bit less than the entire population of modern Chicago.

Here's another one: roughly 4500 Americans were killed during the Iraq War, and many Americans thought that was a lot. The lowest estimates for the number of peopled killed in the Great War is 16 million ... more than three thousand times as many Americans were lost in Iraq. Roughly 9600 people were killed every day during the Great War ... more than twice as many people as the US lost in the entirety of the Iraq War.

It's still pretty damned hard to imagine.


16 years old when I went to the war,
To fight for a land fit for heroes,
God on my side, and a gun in my hand,
Chasing my days down to zero,
And I marched and I fought and I bled and I died,
And I never did get any older,
But I knew at the time that a year in the line,
Is a long enough life for a soldier,

We all volunteered, and we wrote down our names,
And we added two years to our ages,
Eager for life and ahead of the game,
Ready for history's pages,
And we brawled and we fought and we whored 'til we stood,
Ten thousand shoulder to shoulder,
A thirst for the Hun, we were food for the gun,
And that's what you are when you're soldiers,

I heard my friend cry, and he sank to his knees,
Coughing blood as he screamed for his mother,
And I fell by his side, and that's how we died,
Clinging like kids to each other,
And I lay in the mud and the guts and the blood,
And I wept as his body grew colder,
And I called for my mother and she never came,
Though it wasn't my fault and I wasn't to blame,
The day not half over and ten thousand slain,
And now there's nobody remembers our names,
And that's how it is for a soldier.

The absence of war, the long peace of the nineteenth century, had produced an odd fetish: the men of the era could look back at the warriors of the early modern, and medieval, pasts with envy. Those men, the honored ancestors of the modern nobility, had been given the opportunity to prove their manliness on the field of battle; to show off their strength and courage and honor in a way denied to the modern man. So when the war came, there was excitement; this was the time for the men of the west to show their mettle in honorable combat, and then be home in time for christmas.

This was a bit silly, even then; the war they were imagining was the war of knights, and their great-grandparents (not to mention the aged among the Americans) could have told them that nineteenth century war was not like the warfare of western European romantic mythos.

In the event, what they got was a shock; the machine guns of Verdun killed two thousand people a day every day for nine months. (I cannot imagine; this is everyone living on my block, in the densest city in the United States ... every day ... for 3/4 of a year). Hand grenades and tanks appeared for the first time. Clouds of poison gas appeared, unexpected and unnasked for, and killed thousands in single attacks. (Particularly troubling was the way the gas lingered in the places best suited for hiding from the machine guns, leaving the soldiers on some lines with literally no place to go to escape). This latter development was so horrific that the weapons were banned - and, amazingly, the ban was adhered to during the second world war.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.


The war changed the face of the world. It shattered the Austrian empire into a dozen pieces. It destroyed the Ottoman Empire - an empire which itself had been responsible, half a millenium before, for destroying the last remnants of the Roman Empire. (It also destroyed the German Empire, but that was a minor effect). It shattered the Russian Empire so badly that the government which replaced it was itself overthrown, by the world's first and primary socialist revolution. It gave birth to Australia and New Zealand, whose national memories in many ways begin with the slaughter of their civilians children on the shore of Turkey. And it fatally weakened all of the European colonial empires - for the war was fought in Africa and Asia, too,  and those battles were the first time the colonized peoples saw Europeans defeated - the first time that it really became reasonable to believe that it was possible to defeat the colonial masters. Even the United States, a late entrant in the war, changed; it nationalized the railroads and the wireless, revolutionized its tax structure, and imposed heavily repressive anti-speech measures which would, half a decade later, trigger a revolution in constitutional law.

Americans talk, sometimes, about how nothing was the same after 9-11, and it's a bit hard to take it seriously. But for the western world, it really was true: after the Great War, nothing was ever again the same.


On Armistice Day
The Philharmonic will play
But the songs that we sing
Will be sad

And then, one day, as sudden and abrupt as it began, it stopped. The fighting lasted for Four years and slightly less than four months; from the 28th of July, 1914, until the 11th of November, 1918. On that day, the guns fell silent, and the work of creating and maintaining the peace began - a hard work whose failure led more or less inexorably to the start of the second world war.

The day of the armistice? It became a holiday; of course it did. In much of the west, it remains a holiday. In the United States, it's been somewhat unmoored from its foundations - the Great War was a relatively minor thing for us - but not so much in other countries.

When I started writing these, there were still veterans alive; now there are none, the last one having died in 2012. The Great War has passed from memory to history, as all things do in time. And yet, for those who look, it remains a terrible beacon: a reminder that we can be surprised by our own savagery, that the people of the west are capable of bringing to life our darkest nightmares ... and that we must never allow it to happen again.

O valiant hearts who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.

Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
As who had heard God’s message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
To save mankind—yourselves you scorned to save.

Splendid you passed, the great surrender made;
Into the light that nevermore shall fade;
Deep your contentment in that blest abode,
Who wait the last clear trumpet call of God.

Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still,
Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
While in the frailty of our human clay,
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self same way.

Still stands His Cross from that dread hour to this,
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still, through the veil, the Victor’s pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.

These were His servants, in His steps they trod,
Following through death the martyred Son of God:
Victor, He rose; victorious too shall rise
They who have drunk His cup of sacrifice.

O risen Lord, O Shepherd of our dead,
Whose cross has bought them and Whose staff has led,
In glorious hope their proud and sorrowing land
Commits her children to Thy gracious hand.

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A moment of silence, please | 8 comments (8 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
Tune by Herring (4.00 / 2) #1 Sun Nov 10, 2013 at 07:20:55 PM EST
Excuse ads

christ, we're all old now - StackyMcRacky
for those not tune-enabled by aphrael (4.00 / 2) #2 Sun Nov 10, 2013 at 07:22:56 PM EST

Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down beside your graveside
And rest for a while 'neath the warm summer sun
I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in 1916
Well I hope you died quick
And I hope you died clean
Oh Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene

Did they beat the drums slowly?
Did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play the Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart you're forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame

Did they beat the drums slowly?
Did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play the Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plow
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that's still no man's land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation were butchered and damned

Did they beat the drums slowly?
Did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play the Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

And I can't help but wonder oh Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh Willy McBride it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again

Did they beat the drums slowly?
Did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play the Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

[ Parent ]
19th Century? Peaceful? by anonimouse (4.00 / 1) #3 Mon Nov 11, 2013 at 01:33:55 AM EST
I'm not convinced that a century that opened with Trafalgar, went on to Waterloo, and included the American Civil War and Franco-Prussian War amongst many others can be called peaceful

Girls come and go but a mortgage is for 25 years -- JtL
Crimean war by ana (4.00 / 1) #4 Mon Nov 11, 2013 at 07:20:40 AM EST
 and, as you say, many others.

But the US Civil War was something of a curiosity, allowing the European powers of the time to see their tactical and strategic ideas in action, how they succeeded, how they failed. The siege of Petersburg at the end of that war presaged WW I, with trenches and machine guns.

Rommel spent some time in USia in the 30s studying the cavalry tactics and battles of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

I now know what the noise that is usually spelled "lolwhut" sounds like. --Kellnerin

[ Parent ]
Two words: barbed wire by wumpus (2.00 / 0) #7 Mon Nov 11, 2013 at 09:35:07 AM EST
While the gatling gun was used at the siege of Petersburg, barbed wire wasn't invented for another decade. It's quite likely that barbed wire played a greater role (kept attackers in the mouth of the guns longer) than any other changes before the Great War.


[ Parent ]
the crimean war was nasty by aphrael (2.00 / 0) #5 Mon Nov 11, 2013 at 08:39:28 AM EST
but it touched very, very few lives. It was, as I said, on the periphery.

The American Civil War was the warning sign that the great powers ignored; a sign of just how savage modern war had become. But they were able to ignore it because it was far away.

The period between 1815 and 1914 was the longest period without a general European war since it was possible to discuss the concept of a general European war.

Compare to the eigteenth century:

War of the Spanish Succession 1701-1713
War of the Austrian Succession 1740-1758
Seven Years' War 1756-1763
Napoleonic wars 1792-1815

Or remember the horrors of the thirty years' war, which for Germany was worse than the Great War.

But the 19th century? COmparatively peaceful, by far.

If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

[ Parent ]
Comparatively Peaceful?? by anonimouse (2.00 / 0) #8 Mon Nov 11, 2013 at 02:33:18 PM EST
Napoleonic War Was essentially a 19th century war, not 18th century. I didn't even mention Napoleons doomed invasion of Russia.

As for the Crimean War touching very few lives, it killed half a million people. I grant that is not anything like the epic levels of WW1 and WW2 but it is enough.

Lest I forget we also have the Austro-Prussian war and various wars where Germany was generally kicking ass in order to get itself unified in time for 1914, plus plenty of bloodshed in the Balkans.

Most of the wars I've mentioned individually caused more deaths than the first three on your list combined because of the increasing lethality of firearms, and the increasing (but imperfect) ability of armies to be supplied on the move.

Girls come and go but a mortgage is for 25 years -- JtL
[ Parent ]
To my Grandfather and my Father by Gedvondur (4.00 / 2) #6 Mon Nov 11, 2013 at 09:19:34 AM EST
One who served in the second war and one who served in the bitter war so I never had to.

"So I will be hitting the snatch hard, I think, tonight." - gzt
A moment of silence, please | 8 comments (8 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback