This Sunday is the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. World War One holds special significance for me, as you will read below.
(side note: if you have not yet seen Wonder Woman, it is a surprisingly good war movie. The Western Front scenes alone make it worth the time to watch.)
The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
When the bombs finally stopped.
Armistice Day. Veterans Day. Remembrance Day.
It started as a recollection of the cessation of hostilities in Europe during World War One.
Although the day has evolved over the years to remember all the War Dead, it is worthwhile to pause and contemplate its origins.
To set the stage, in the various wars since 2001 about 7,000 U.S. service members have been killed to date; each a horrific loss to their families, their communities, and their country. They are remembered, and they are mourned.
The Battle of the Somme, one of the largest and bloodiest battles of The Great War, produced more than a million casualties, with British forces suffering over 60,000 casualties in just one day.
These are impossible numbers.
My grandfather was hit by Mustard Gas, and spent months recuperating in a hospital in France. He was lucky. His older brother, my great-uncle Donald, is buried in Belgium near Ypres; his pieced-together regiment found the “End of the World” at the infamous Battle of Mont Sorrel.
It’s not just an old family story. It’s also an ending of further generations. The children never born that would have been my aunts and uncles. Cousins never met. Nieces and nephews to cherish… not there. Multiplied by impossible numbers.
Each November 11 I think of those who fought. I think of young, young men in the mud and the filth and the fear of those trenches; or at Gallipoli, at Caporetto, at Ypres and Canal du Nord, firing blindly at other young, young men now lying quiet beneath fields and forests. Of those who lay unmarked and still unknown; of the ones recognized with stones growing mossy and worn, soon to be unreadable.
I think of doctors and nurses struggling to heal the broken and bleeding in field tents awash in mud. Working by torch- and candle light without antibiotics. Without suture thread. Without sufficient medicines, heat or water. Without anesthesia or antiseptic beyond the raw alcohol that was poured half into the wound and half into the solider. Without CT scans, MRIs, or Xrays, or anything but a guess at whether the bleeding went on inside as well as out.
Below is a chart I pulled down from a historic website:
||casualties in % of men mobilised
My Canadian forebears are represented in the British Empire numbers above. The U.S. sent 4.3 million soldiers, of which 126,000 were killed, 234,000 were wounded, and 4,500 remain unknown.
Civilian casualties aren’t represented above, and these battles were fought through peoples’ homes, their fields and farms. Nor do the numbers reflect casualties that resulted post-ceasefire, when shattered remnants of communities had to feed and clothe themselves in the brutal years that followed as the countryside and its people tried to recover without husbands, fathers and sons to work in the still-agrarian society.
If a family was lucky and Jean-Luc came marching home again, more than half the time he came home crippled. Or blind. Or insane.
One last piece of information to mull.
France – through whose countryside coiled the famous “Western Front”– got hit with approximately 1.5 BILLION mortar shells over the course of the War. Unexploded ordnance still shows up nearly every day, much of it dangerously active. Mustard gas was a surprisingly stable mix and even at 100 years old, a canister that breaks is lethal.
There are teams of professionals dedicated to combing the countryside to collect what the French call “The Iron Harvest”. These teams bring in between 50,000 and 75,000 tons annually (at that rate, they’ll have enough work to keep them busy for the next 500 years.)
On any given walkabout, one can find old rifles, munitions, shells, grenades, and human remains.
With 7.7 million soldiers still listed as missing and unknown they are still finding a lot of bodies.
Poppies for Remembrance
Lieutenant-Colonel Jon McCrae, a Canadian physician, wrote the poem below to commemorate a friend who fell at the second battle of Ypres. It was published and quickly adopted as a remembrance. Paper poppies became a way to raise money to support wounded soldiers, who would make them in the military hospitals as a way to pass the time. They used to be sold on every street corner in early November – as a child I remember seeing elderly women with small metal collection cans and fists full of red, and how my Mom or my Grandmother would make a point to buy one and tie it around a button on my coat for the day. I rarely see them any more, but when I do I buy as many as I can.
I urge you – if this weekend on your errands you happen to see someone selling them, spend a dollar to remember the Riley boys, and Dr. McRae’s colleague, and your own families and friends: gone but never forgotten.
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.