Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Remembering the Great War – November 11th

Remembering the ‘Great War’
Nov. 11 marks 90th anniversary of WWI’s end


Trench warfare – static and deadly – became the norm for most of World War I

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.”
Wilfred Owen – died 1918

Ninety years ago at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the great guns fell silent and Europe experienced a silence it had not known in years. It was the end of the “Great War,” the War to end all Wars. Today, we know that was a hopeful but futile sentiment as the War to end all Wars is now known as World War I.

Two bullets and a lost driver set off a powder keg whose explosion engulfed Europe. In the summer of 1914, a driver made a wrong turn and ended up in the path of a young assassin who had actually given up trying find his intended target and was just finishing off a sandwich. The young assassin was a Serbian belonging to a radical group known as the Black Hand. Their target was the Arch-Duke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who was touring Sarajevo. They had tried earlier that day to assassinate him but failed. Now Fate through the hands of a lost driver delivered the Arch-Duke into one of the assassin’s hands who took full advantage of his good luck and fired his pistol killing Ferdinand.

The assassination caused the collapse of the house of cards that were the national alliances of the day. Austria-Hungary with German support declared war on Serbia. Russia was allied with Serbia so they entered the war. France was allied with Russia and so they entered the war. Germany in order to swiftly attack France violated Belgium’s borders by crossing it with their troops. Britain had an alliance with Belgium and so they entered the war. Eventually other nations would enter the war as well including the United States.

World War I in many ways was the “War to end all Wars” in that it was every war past and future rolled up into one. There were Napoleonic charges, aerial bombardment, a few misguided cavalry charges with actual horses, tanks, machine guns, artillery barrages, air combat, poison gas attacks, flamethrowers, submarine warfare, and primitive hand-to-hand fighting that came down to knives, sharpened spades, and clubs. The future met the past in a brutal collision.


Soldiers dehumanized by their gas masks

While fighting took place in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, Russia, and the borders of Italy and Austria, the bulk of the fighting took place in the area known as the Western Front. The Western Front was a long series of extensive trenches between France and Germany stretching into Belgium where most of the intensive fighting of the war took place. So many men died in such a concentrated place.

While WWII has a far higher casualty rate, this was widespread throughout the globe. The majority of WWI casualties, however, occurred along the several hundred kilometers of the Western Front from the North Sea to the Swiss border. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the British lost over 50,000 dead and wounded in the space of a few kilometers.


Stretcher-bearers trudge through the mud with a wounded victim

The trenches were hell on earth – mud, water, snipers, artillery barrages, barbed wire, machine gun fire, and the rotting corpses of those who fell in No-Man’s Land, the deadly area between the opposing armies’ trenches. Plus there was rampant disease, lice, and rats grown fat from feeding off of corpses.

“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.”
Siegfried Sassoon – 1918

The Second World War often gets more attention in the popular imagination. Countless movies, books, comic books, documentaries, TV shows, magazines and so on focus on the many aspects of the war. Battles, generals, strategies, policies, ideologies get constantly battered about from academic circles to office water coolers. It’s a subject many have some knowledge of whereas World War I only brings to mind to some (particularly Americans) the Red Baron, the imaginary nemesis of the Peanut’s comic strip character, Snoopy.


Manfred von Richthofen – the Red Baron – Germany’s Flying Ace

And there’s a good reason for that. With World War II there was a clear reason to fight. For the Allies, it was to defeat the conquering Nazis and Imperialist Japanese. For the Germans, it was to revenge their humiliation with the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. For the Japanese, it was believed they were saving Asia (though they didn’t bother to ask the rest of Asia). It is easier for modern day audiences to understand the rationales and motivations of those who fought in that war.

The reasons for fighting the First World War, however, are rather vague. The motivations for the soldiers fighting are also vague. It’s hard to understand the patriotic fever which led to so many men signing up to fight a war that appeared to have been fought for the sheer hell of it and no other reason. In modern academia, the “isms” of nationalism, militarism, imperialism are blamed for causing the war.

For war enthusiasts, World War I is a hard one to get enthusiastic about. Most of the literature and films on the subject have been anti-war save for a few on WWI pilots and Sergeant York which was released when America was entering WWII.

Then there’s strategy. With WWII battles there was often a lot of planning and logistics that went into major battles on both sides. Armchair military historians can easily while away the hours discussing the many stratagems of WWII generals.

The battles of WWI on the other hand appear to have been planned by generals who were either appallingly stupid or monstrously callous to causalities that their battles produced. At the Battle of the Somme, soldiers were ordered to advance at a walking pace. This was to keep the lines orderly and lower the chances of friendly fire – it also made the British soldiers perfect targets for German machine gunners.


Soldiers make their way on catwalks over flooded trenches

The whole war in retrospect seems a comic-tragedy of epic proportions. Men died in the thousands for a few yards of earth. The British comedy series Black Adder brilliantly showed the insanity of WWI strategy in its fourth season – “Black Adder Goes Forth.” In one episode, a general is looking at a scale map of the last battle and asks his aide for the scale. His aid answers “one to one, sir!” and the general shows no surprise but is glad that 17 square feet of mud is no longer in German hands.

The Great War ended over 90 years ago but the consequences still live with us to this day. The war changed the maps, changed class systems, changed the way in which wars are fought, and changed technology. Iraq is one of those changes having been created out of the territory of the old Ottoman Empire.

Ultimately, Nov. 11 is a bittersweet day to remember the end of a terrible war and all those who died in it. Nov. 11 is also a day to reflect on the futile hope of the time that there would be no other wars to follow. If we truly wish to honor veterans, we must pledge to rid ourselves of the thing that took so many of their comrades’ lives.

World War One Airmen
Heroes of the Skies


Air technology changed drastically throughout the war

The patriotic fever that led so many to enlist to fight in the Great War soon died in the mud of the trenches. The mud tended to swallow up heroes and with men dying in droves in the matter of minutes, the glory of war faded in the wake of grim reality.

However, there was one area in which war romanticism found a new home. The Great War ushered in the age of aerial combat and it was here that heroes could be found or made. Flight was still in its infancy at the beginning of the war but it became caught up in the technological race. Planes went from observation scouts to reconnaissance observers to bombers to fighters. Fighter pilots were a new breed of soldier and they quickly became the apple of the public eye.

The best of the pilots became celebrities and were wined and dined by the rich and famous. Canadian Fighter Ace William “Billy” Bishop had an audience with Britain’s monarch even.

But fame could not ward off the spectre of death and even the best went down in flames. The difference though between the death of the landlocked soldier and the pilot was that the former often died anonymously while the other could reap headlines and a formal funeral. The death of aces, though, could also shock an entire nation as it did with the deaths of the famous Red Baron and the beloved French ace Georges Guynemer.

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November 11, 2008 - Posted by | air combat, airplanes, armistice day, Blogroll, culture, europe, european history, history, life, November 11th, peace, red baron, remembrance day, tradition, tragedy, veterans day, world war I | , , , , , , , ,

6 Comments »

  1. [...] Link [...]

    Pingback by World’s Strangest | Remembering the Great War | November 11, 2009 | Reply

  2. Helpful and informative article. I’ll post it on my blog. Thanks!

    Comment by Jon Christenson | November 11, 2009 | Reply

  3. As you point out, World War I has largely disappeared from public consciousness. The number of surviving veterans is down to a tiny handful.

    I agree with you that the war is often viewed with a distorted perspective. However, I don’t think you appreciate how much perspectives are distorted. For example, you write,

    “While fighting took place in Africa, the Middle East,
    the Balkans, Russia, and the borders of Italy and
    Austria, the bulk of the fighting took place in the
    area known as the Western Front.”

    If you examine the Wikipedia page for World War I casualties, you will see that total military deaths for Allied countries fighting only on fronts other than the Western Front are about 3.0 million, while total military deaths for Allied countries that fought principally on the Western Front are 2.5 million. (And note that those deaths include French and British soldiers who fought in Italy, as well as British and French campaigns against the Ottoman Empire.) For the Central Powers, military deaths away from the Western front were above 2 million, while deaths on the Western front were under 2 million (Total German military deaths were about 2 million, and the German army fought in France, Russia, Serbia, Romania, and Northern Italy.)

    Comparison of military deaths between the Western Front and other fronts suggests that a tremendous amount of bitter fighting took place far from France and Belgium. But the Western Front dominates the perspective of most casual observers.

    For another example, you write:

    “The trenches were hell on earth – mud, water, snipers,
    artillery barrages, barbed wire, machine gun fire,…”

    and you provide four pictures from the trenches. The pictures you provide are all of soldiers from the British Imperial forces (note the helmets), and three of the four pictures were taken in Belgium, on the southern part of the Western Front.

    Trenches in this part of the front were constructed in marshy ground with high water tables, leading to trench flooding and mud. However, the southern part of the Western Front was mountainous. In this area, trenches could be icy and stony rather than wet and muddy.

    What I mean to suggest is that conventional wisdom about World War I is very heavily influenced by the British experience on the northern section of the Western Front. My concern is the conventional wisdom is a handicap in gaining a proper historical perspecitve on the war in full.

    Comment by W Krebs | November 11, 2009 | Reply

  4. Thank you for a post on the first World War. Lest we forget.

    Comment by Jane Noel | November 11, 2009 | Reply

  5. [...] -Dave Ronin (Link) [...]

    Pingback by World War I Ended 90 Years Ago Today « The Peelarium | November 12, 2009 | Reply

  6. If you wan’t to see how it looked to be on the front lines in WW1, come to Slovenija. There’s a couple of museums, most famous one is in Kobarid. http://www.kobariski-muzej.si/?lng=ang

    Comment by stripofil | November 12, 2009 | Reply


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