Posted by: Dominic | November 15, 2010

Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day was a few days ago, marking the end of hostilities in the First World War for Britain and the Commonwealth. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 ended the war to end all wars. It was a quickly concluded truce, signed in a rail car in a forest in northeastern France.

It is well worth remembering the First World War. The numbers themselves continue to horrify almost a century later. All sides together suffered 37.5 million casualties. Eight and one-half million were killed. Nine out of ten Austro-Hungarian soldiers became a casualty. For the French, it was a little more than seven out of ten.

Even the last day was bloody. The Armistice was signed around 5 am, to go into effect six hours later. In that time span, there were more than 10,000 casualties. Almost three thousand of those were deaths.

The awful experience of war grew to grotesque proportions through the machine gun, airplane,  submarine, and chemical gas. Industrial scale carnage was now possible. The extent of the destruction was captured by some amazing writers, who wrote of the endless, meaningless death that accompanied every day.

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark. In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go. (Siegfried Sassoon, Suicide in the Trenches)

Wilfred Owen confronted one of the cruelest horrors of the 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 I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
(Excerpt from Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est)

These stand in stark contrast to the dutiful patriotism of “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae.

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.

Owen and McCrae were both casualties of the war. McCrae died of pneumonia in January 1918. Owen was killed in action during the Second Battle of the Sambre, one week before the armistice was signed.

Why remember anyway? The reasons, assuredly, are multiple and complex. An equally interesting question is – why is World War One not remembered in the United States? In the US, Remembrance Day has become a way to celebrate all veterans, not just those of the First World War. In some way it is understandable: America was not physically affected by the war, which destroyed much of Western Europe. Nor was social structure thrown into such deep upheaval. Nor were American casualties very high in comparison to their European counterparts. Yet the Americans suffered over 100,000 dead in the span of a year or so. America too has its Lost Generation of writers. Why then is World War One so conspicuously absent from the American memorial landscape?


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