A Generation Lost

Posted on June 25, 2016


A few weeks ago I used the phrase “no man’s land” in a column here in “The Port Rail.” It has an eerie sound to it. No man’s land. It was the battlefield between the lines of trenches dug by both Allies and the Germans confronting each other on the Western Front during the First World War, 1914-1918.

This year we commemorate the halfway mark of the most destructive war in history. I would write “celebrate,” but there was nothing to celebrate about the First World War, known as the Great War before the Second came along in 1939.

Since this is the centennial of the First World War, I think it is appropriate to dwell on some aspects of it.  During the Battle of Verdun, February-March, 1916, for example, over 260,000 French and German men were killed, dead, or missing. That’s just for one battle. Overall, the statistics are staggering.

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was more than 38 million: there were over 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.

Few men returned from no man’s land on these near suicidal assaults. Hundreds, thousands and then millions of men were chewed up by machine guns, tanks, gas and the other gruesome inventions of war.

Going over the top, leaving your trenches, and lurching forward with all your gear, gas mask, guns, ammunition was considered suicidal.

So, “no man’s land” worked its way into our language.

Compare that with modern statistics of U. S. losses in wars from Vietnam to today.

We’re not creating a misery and sorrow index here. All deaths and wounded in war, whatever their number, cause pain and suffering. But the First World War, if nothing else, reminds us of what can, and did, happen when the world went to war. It is not an improbable scenario today.

As a people we have lost that memory of that war. The recent commemoration of the atomic bombing (1945) of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is closer to us in time and it did stir up the memory of the horror of war. Possibly up to 130,000 died due to those two atomic bombs. That’s about half of just the soldiers who perished in the Battle of Verdun.

During the first five months of the First World War, or August-December, 1914, virtually the entire British Expeditionary Force of 160,000 men sent initially to support the French were wiped out. By the end of the war, one speaks of an entire generation of young Englishmen gone.

In the midst of this ghastly slaughter, something happened so uncontrollably and so unusually that I don’t think it could have been invented even by fiction writers. Soldiers on both sides started to sing “Stille Nacht” or “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve and the firing stopped. The infantrymen peaked over the tops of the trenches, and then slowly came out into No Man’s Land and started fraternizing in a spilling of the Christmas spirit that can only be judged as miraculous.

Officers on both sides were outraged at the breech of discipline but for the next day or two were powerless to force the men back into the trenches and resume hostilities. So guess what happened?

Man, not God, prevailed and the slaughter continued, not to finally cease until November 11, 1918, both sides exhausted and spent trying to destroy each other. The only fresh ones on the battlefields of the Western Front were the American soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force commanded by General John Pershing, who started to come “over there” after the U. S. entered the war in 1917.

The “doughboys” of America helped bring the war to an end. The trickle of soldiers in 1917 turned into a stream in 1918 and the Germans and their allies could see there was no turning the Americans back. As in World War II, America’s entrance in the war triggered the immense latent power and productivity of the U. S. into the warring equations of both wars. We proved too much for either the Germans under the Kaiser or the Germans under Hitler and the Japanese under their war lords.

We need to remember World War One. If your child has never heard of it, that’s because it has been written out of, or downplayed, in modern histories devoted to new topics.

As the philosopher and historian George Santayana so eloquently phrased it: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Published in The Tuscaloosa News as World War I and the Lost Generation Sunday June 19, 2016

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