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.
— Lt. Col. John McCrae,
“In Flanders Fields”
For those who care, Nov. 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
As one whose grandfathers were both doughboys on the Western Front, I remember hearing the stories of trench warfare. My paternal granddad was wounded in his left arm, and several years later, received a Purple Heart. The war changed those men, just as it changed virtually everyone involved in it.
When the guns fell silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there was relief and celebration. Germany had surrendered, yielding to the overwhelming might of the Allies. The armistice was to mark the beginning of peace in the world.
What began in 1914 was not supposed to last four years. When the European powers deployed their standing armies and called up reservists in the summer of that year, many young men eagerly joined what seemed like an adventure. Europe had not experienced a continental war since the defeat of Napoleon almost a century before, and the new war was to be a quick one, lasting only a few weeks or months at most. Fantasyland gave way to No Man’s Land.
There was a feeling — somewhat justified — that the emerging United States brought an end to the protracted war in Europe.
The U.S. had stayed out of the fray. Americans, after all, had little desire to enter a war 3,000 miles away in Europe.
Yet, neutrality vanished in early 1917 against the backdrop of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare, which claimed increasing numbers of American ships and lives.
President Woodrow Wilson, who had just won re-election with the promise to keep America out of the war, mobilized opinion in favor of intervention. That war, he promised, would be the last one, “the war to end all wars.”
Incidentally, at that time and until the outbreak of the second global inferno, the war was not known as World War I, but rather, the Great War.
The Great War was marked by aggression, attrition and atrocities. It may not be a stretch to describe the war itself as an atrocity.
Human beings became quite inhumane toward one another, as they turned their creative and inventive abilities to devising new and sadistic ways of killing each other, including: machine guns that could mow down advancing battalions; airplanes from which bombs could be dropped; poison gas, which could destroy the lungs and leave victims strangling in their own blood; and the flamethrower, which could incinerate flesh.
It is no wonder many returned from the war with their psyches wounded and scarred.
All of the World War I veterans are dead now. But it would be a shame if we forget the experiences and sacrifices, as well as the courage, of that generation.
It is also worth asking if we are closer to peace now than they were then.