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.

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

Zagreb’s Noonday “Chime” Video

Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, has an interesting way to mark the time at noon using a howitzer cannon.

February 26, 2008 Posted by | cannon, chimes, clock tower, Croatia, Eastern Europe, europe, Howitzer, noon, video, vlog, youtube, Yugoslavia, Zagreb | 2 Comments

Zagreb’s Noonday “Chime”

Zagreb’s Noonday ‘Chime’
Croatia’s capital marks noon with a blast

Croatian capital of Zagreb in the early morning.

The Croatian capital of Zagreb has an interesting way in which it marks the noon hour. Other cities may mark the hours including noon with chimes, tolling bells or melodies, but Zagreb is rather unique in announcing the noon hour with an ear-shattering burst from an artillery cannon.

One of Zagreb’s ubiquitous street cars.

Car and Tram pass each other by on a Zagreb street.

I arrived in Zagreb one early morning before sunrise. The city was already stirring as its streetcars rumbled along packed with passengers. I took a crowded one to the city center from the bus station. I was sweating because I didn’t have a ticket and I didn’t know where to get one. Fortunately, no undercover tram police were there to spring any surprise inspections.

In one of Zagreb’s major centers, I found a statue of a fierce-looking fellow on an equally fierce-looking horse dominating the square. This was the famous Croatian general and governor Josip Jelacic, who led an unsuccessful attempt to win Croatia independence from Hungary in the 19th century. Yugoslavian President Tito had the statue mothballed because its presence was too much of a magnet for Croatian nationalism. When Croatia severed the knot with Yugoslavia, Jelacic was yanked back out so that he could continue to scowl eternally at the pigeons resting on his sword arm.

Governor General Josip Jelacic – an early leader for Slavic autonomy.

Zagreb’s origins go back to the 11th century when it was actually two towns in very close proximity to each other: Kaptol and Gradec. For several centuries a rivalry existed between the two that could hardly be described as friendly. The church-dominated Kaptol once excommunicated Gradec. Gradec unfazed then pillaged and razed Kaptol. Gradec apparently took its version of the old saying to heart that “words will never hurt me, but sticks and stones will hurt you.”

Zagreb’s cathedral in the predawn hours.

It took the Turks to get the two towns to bury their respective hatchets in the symbolic ground and not in the physical body parts of their citizens. From the 15th century onward, the Ottoman Turks had begun their conquests of Eastern Europe. One by one they gobbled up various Croatian cities until practically Kaptol and Gradec were the only cities not conquered. Out of necessity, the two old rivals grudgingly decided to merge and become Zagreb.

Zagreb has its fair share of graffiti.

Zagreb became the capital of Croatian territories out of default since so many other towns had been devastated by the Ottomans. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Zagreb prospered and could truly take on the mantle of a capital city. Zagreb became more than a governmental capital, though. It became one of the major focal points for a growing movement for Slavic autonomy and recognition within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Stone Gate with shrine to a 17th-century Virgin Mary painting that miraculously survived a fire centuries ago.

After WWI, the Austro-Hungarian yoke was at last lifted but a long and bumpy road was ahead for Zagreb. Occupied by the Nazis, used as the capital of a brief but murderous Nazi-allied regime and attacked by Serbian rockets in a presidential assassination attempt, Zagreb has weathered some rough times.

Museum exhibit showing the effects of the war with Serbia.

In the Upper Town area of former Kaptol is the 13th-century Lotrscak Tower, where every day at noon a cannon is fired off to mark the noon hour. When I originally heard of this, I had assumed the cannon was a 19th-century relic. I was expecting a mild rolling boom like you get with fireworks but instead I was nearly rocked off my feet by the concussion of the blast.

Lotrscak Tower, where everyday at noon a cannon is fired off.

Inside Lotrscak Tower.

I was positioned directly below the tower right before noon. With me were several travelers and a group of schoolchildren. I could see the slender barrel of the cannon from one of the tower’s few windows. From its size, I feared I would get even less of a blast. However when noon struck, the cannon exploded shattering the air and sending a shockwave through my body. That was a hell of a lot of bang for such a small barrel and for what I thought would be some old cannon.

Zagreb’s noonday chime.

I went into the tower to discover the source of that frightful noise. I found that the slender barrel from the window was attached not to some museum-like relic of bygone ages but to a substantial piece of field artillery whose type had been used in WWII. It was a 75mm mountain howitzer! The term cannon just doesn’t really do the piece justice and it certainly takes unknowing onlookers by surprise. It made me wonder if the need arose, whether Lotrscak Tower become an artillery point at a moment’s notice.

Enjoying the view of Zagreb from Lotrscak Tower.

The current noonday “chime” is a gift from the United States given during the 1980s. Only those with a military background and artillery experience can fire it. So if you find yourself under the Lotrscak Tower around the noon hour, be prepared to stick your fingers in your ears.

February 26, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, cannon, Croatia, Eastern Europe, europe, Howitzer, travel, Yugoslavia, Zagreb | 5 Comments

Samurai Dave’s 2007 In Review Video

Here’s a video-photo montage of Samurai Dave’s 2007 In Review with music by Seven Cycle Theory:

The song is called “Only Once” which I think appropiate for life and traveling. You’ve only got one life – go somewhere and do something!

January 3, 2008 Posted by | 2007, 47 Ronin, Bavaria, Bayern, beer, belly dancing, biwa, Blogroll, buddhism, culture, entertainment, europe, event, festival, floats, geisha, Germany, japan, Kyoto, matsuri, montage, music, New Year's Eve, ninja, photographs, rock, sakura, seven cycle theory, sumo, taiko, tennessee, tohoku, tokyo, travel, video, vlog, youtube | Leave a comment