And fitful flashes light the gloom
While up above, like eagles, fly
The fierce destroyers in the sky:
With stains, the earth wherein you lie
Is redder than the poppy bloom.
In Flanders Field.
The war went on for four years. It's estimated that 68 million people fought in the war; one out of every seven of them died, and another two in seven were wounded. It's estimated that a third of the fighting age male population of Britain was killed or wounded.
Imagine that, if you will; more people were killed in those four years than the entire population of New York City today.
Take a moment and consider that. Imagine your college or high school; imagine one third of the men you went to school with killed or wounded. I've tried doing this; I can do it intellectually - but the attempt to imagine it causes me to shut down emotionally. How scarring must it have been to have lived through it?
Sleep on, ye brave, the shrieking shell.
The quaking trench, the startled yell.
The fury of the battle hell
Shall wake you not, for all is well.
Sleep peacefully, for all is well.
Your flaming torch aloft we bear.
With burning heart, an oath we swear
To keep the faith, to fight it through
To crush the foe, or sleep with you
In Flanders Field.
The British had it easy, compared to some. More than forty percent of the fighting age male population of Serbia was killed or wounded. Fifty percent for Russia. Close to 60% in Austria; and a staggering 2/3 of the fighting age male population of France.
It was a calamity unlike anything the world had known in living memory. The Napoleonic wars were bad, but they hadn't been this bad, and they were three generations past. The Thirty Years' War, maybe, could compete; but it was thirty years (not four) ... and it was almost three hundred years past.
This war was unimaginable, unheralded, unprecedented.
Oh! sleep in peace where poppies grow;
The torch your falling hands let go
Was caught by us, again held high.
A beacon light in Flanders sky
That dims the stars to those below.
You are our dead; you held the foe.
And ear the poppies cease to blow,
We'll prove our faith in you who lie
In Flanders Fields
There'd been warning signs. A generation before, the Franco-Prussian war had killed 160,000 and wounded 220,000 more over the course of a year, showing the world the first glimmering of industrial war. The American Civil War had killed a tenth of fighting age northern men and more than a quarter of fighting age southern men, but it too had faded into memory (and wasn't well understood outside of America anyhow). They were warnings, and they could have been heeded, but they weren't.
Oh! rest ni peace, we quickly go
To you who bravely died, and know
In other fields was heard the cry.
For Freedom's cause, of you who lie.
So still asleep where poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.
The war was a technologist's dream. For the first time, men took to the sky to fight and use the power of airplanes to try to control events on the ground. Wireless telegraphy came into its own, and modern radio was born. Horses were rendered obsolete; guns became stronger and faster (also, perhaps, harder and better). Chemists produced magic new gases that could kill, or maim, or bring great pain; in response, soldiers shaved their beards and mustaches and donned gas masks.
Combat was large-scale, the slaughter automated and industrialized; in seven days in the fall of 1914, two and a half million soldiers contested control of a river in France, and in those seven days, at least 90,000 were killed and up to 400,000 more were wounded. In seven days.
Europeans, particularly the gentry, had a myth about war: it was the proving ground of individual courage and valor. A remnant memory of medieval values, of the time when single combat and derring-do could carry the day. That romanticized myth was swept away by the reality of the times: soldiers as cogs in a machine that ground them to blood and bone regardless of their courage, valor, or individual merit.
As in rumbling sound, to and fro.
The lightning flashes, sky aglow.
The mighty hosts appear, and high
Above the din of battle cry
Scarce heard amidst the guns below
Are fearless hearts who fight the foe
And guard the place where poppies grow.
Oh! sleep in peace, all you who lie
In Flanders Fields.
In the west, the fight went on for four years with basically no movement. Soldiers camped in trenches, hemmed in by chemical gas and artillery fire; long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, interlaced with periodic suicidal attempts to rush the enemy machine gun barricades.
In the east, the trenches never formed; the Russian lines - manned by soldiers with no weapons, no blankets, no shoes, and little food - collapsed, and the country was overrun. The first Russian Revolution was motivated not by socialism, but by exhaustion: the war had triggered a famine, there were shortages of other goods, and inflation was soaring. Everyone wanted the war to end, and if the emperor would not do it, he had to go; and when the provisional government wouldn't end the war either, it had to go.
In the south, once Turkey got involved, there were no trenches, and little need for them - although the British attempted to invade from the shores of the Aegean, up well-defended cliffs; this debacle nearly destroyed the career of Britain's most famous twentieth-century statesman, and it killed so many colonial soldiers that it triggered the birth of national consciousness in two of her colonies.
And still the poppies gently blow,
Between the crosses, row on row.
The larks, still bravely soaring high,
Are singing now their lullaby
To you who sleep where poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.
Four empires died in the war.
The Ottoman Empire, sick for two centuries yet struggling to survive, shattered; its lands divvied up by the victors, whose failure to care about (let alone comprehend) the natural political divisions of the region continue to haunt it, to this day.
The Russian Empire, exhausted, starving, defeated, was overthrown, and then the government which overthrew it was overthrown in turn. It gave up huge chunks of its western core (although it got them back, later), and proceeded through a bitter civil war which resulted in the establishment of the world's first communist dictatorship, setting the stage for the polar struggle between communism and capitalism which dominated the second half of the twentieth century.
The Austrian Empire, torn by internal strife and barely functional to begin with, shattered into a dozen pieces.
The German Empire fared best; it lost little territory and, while the Emperor was forced to step down, its internal economic and social structure remained mostly unchanged - and the military was able to blame the loss on the democrats who took power after the emperor resigned. They stabbed us in the back, the story went; if it had not been for them, we could have won.
Delusions. But sometimes delusions have power, and these ones did.
So they collected the cripples, the wounded, the mained
And they shipped us back home to Australia
The armless, the legless, the blind and insane,
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay,
I looked at the place where my legs used to be,
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity
But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As they carried us down the gangway
But nobody cheered they just stood and stared
And they turned all their faces away
Even the victors were never the same.
In the United States, the wartime government had arrested people for publically opposing the draft, and the Supreme Court had ruled that freedom of speech did not extend to opposition to an ongoing war. The government had nationalized the railroads and the telegraph industry and had forced industry into retooling itself to supply its needs; and while all of these were unwound after the war, the nation had nonetheless changed.
In Africa and Southeast Asia, for the first time, subject peoples had seen Europeans defeated in battle - and had even participated in the battles which had defeated them; every major independence movement leader of mid-century cited the Great War as the first time they really believed it could be possible to eject the Europeans from their lands.
In the United Kingdom, the massive losses brought about Aussie and Kiwi nationalism, and heightened the push for the devolution which would eventually kill the Empire.
But all of that ignores the deeper scars. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time of progress. A time of deep and abiding belief that a grand new world would make everything better - that war was a thing of the past, that economic growth would bring about paradise on earth, that scientific and technological progress would perfect mankind.
The men who lived through the Great War never regained that belief. In a very real sense, the Great War killed the spirit of the west, and it has yet to truly recover.
On Armistice Day,
the Philharmonic will play
But the songs we sing
Will be sad.
It seemed like the war would never end; the churning slaughter would go on and on, forever, until there was nobody left to kill.
But of course, it did end. November 11, 1918: the guns fell silent, and then everyone went home, to try to rebuild, to try to forget. They rebuilt, but they never forgot. How could they forget?
The United States insists it can never forget the death of three thousand people on a single day a decade and a half ago. How deep must the wound have been when the deaths lay in millions, and the national population was much smaller?
The day became a holiday; a celebration of relief, and yet always, even now, a memory of mourning, and a reminder of a debt.
Armistice Day. November 11. Ninety Six years, now, we have remembered it. And well we should; it marked the end of the war when everything changed.
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