This past week we had a date anomaly – the day, week and month all mirroring each other. But for a small, and ever-dwindling, group of men, the past seven days were significant for a reason far more profound than calendar alignment. They gathered at sites across Europe and America commemorate the moment when, on the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of 1918, the roaring guns of World War I finally fell silent.
It soon became known as the “Great War,” yet that is ill-fitting in all respects save one – the great sacrifices made by soldiers and their families on both sides. More than 8.5 million died (and a further 21 million were wounded), and their number has been dubbed “The Lost Generation,” to signify the enormous loss of life and potential on the fields of Flanders and beyond.
After the war, the leaders of the Western Allies idealistically hoped for permanent peace, though the League of Nations that was set up to foster togetherness and prevent future hostility quickly proved to be a paper tiger. Nonetheless, the sentiment of “never again” was on most lips among the “victors.” Meanwhile, the defeated Germans smarted, not just at their losses of men and material, but also at the overly-punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which punished the “Fatherland” by imposing harsh sanctions on an already ravaged economy, and confiscated territories far and wide. It was the resulting frustration and the promise of restoring national pride that enabled Hitler to take power so swiftly and terribly in the mid to late 1930s. Even with his rise, the majority outside of Germany still hoped for peace, not seeing that no number of Munich Agreements could slake the Fuhrer’s lust for revenge and land.
Though it is easy with hindsight to slam those who, like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, signed such treaties and they must certainly be held accountable for inaction and, in some cases, capitulation, it is just as easy to forget how horrendous the trench-based battles of World War I were, and the impact they had on the collective psyches of both the victors and the vanquished.
Trench foot, rat bites, and typhoid were rampant, as the soldiers literally rotted in their water-logged holes, to say nothing of the mustard gas. There was no sanitation, no clean facilities to treat the wounded, no place to bury the dead. Then, when they were sent over the top, the weak, despairing bunch were greeted by machine gun fire that toppled their ranks like contorted dominoes and, if they advanced to the enemy lines, were ensnared as if they were game in barbed wire, or run through by enemy bayonets. Those who did not capture their foes’ positions yet could not make it back to their own trenches were sometimes so stunned by the clamor, the fear and the firework flashes of barking muzzles that they wandered around in “No Man’s Land” until captured, finished off or, for a lucky few, retrieved by their comrades. Some opposing trenches gained or lost a total of mere inches over the course of the war.
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