NOVEMBER 11, 2009 9:17AM

Armistice Day: Dulce Et Decorum Est?

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         They called it The Great War, and they were right about that. They also called it The War to End All Wars, and about that ... well, they were wrong.

    Laurence Stallings, a U.S. Marine captain who lost a leg in the Belleau Wood fighting in 1918, got straight to it with his pictoral history The First World War -- published in 1933, six full years before the horror would erupt again and plunge the globe back into even worse carnage.

    Stallings selected photographs -- mostly from the Western Front in France and Flanders -- that run the gamut from pathetic to patriotic to poignant to appalling. The idea, he said in the preface, was that someone would eventually make sense out of the chaos, but he really held out little hope for that: The title was deliberately chosen to suggest there would be a Second World War. 

    The names, the faces, that show up in Stallings' book and others are memorable for being published. But countless men exist only in battalion photos hanging in Legion halls or in faded black-and-white portraits stuck among the personal effects of great-grandparents. Some -- many -- simply disappeared as if they'd never lived, their bodies lying under "Known Unto God" markers in vast cemeteries around France and Flanders or so completely obliterated that they have no burial place.

    The statistics Stallings cites are of their time and necessarily incomplete in a country-by-country breakdown of casualties. But still ... ten million known dead soldiers from all sides of the conflict. The numbers are simply too large to make much sense of. It somehow becomes necessary to put them into human perspective.



  British troops on their way to the first morning of the Somme offensive

    Take one campaign. On the first day at the Somme offensive, July 1, 1916, British Field Marshal Douglas Haig sent 750,000 troops over the top straight into massed German machine-guns, artillery and barbed wire. That morning, 20,000 of those men were killed, another 40,000 were wounded or missing. Leading from the rear, Haig didn't call off the attempt to break through the German trenches until mid-November. It was the death of a generation.

    But it's still too many to understand.


Canadians at mons Nov


  Canadian Expeditionary Force entering Mons Nov. 11, 1918

    Take one country: Canada. The population when the war broke out in 1914 was between seven and eight million. More than 600,000 men enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force over the next four years; more than 65,000 of them would be killed and more than 170,000 wounded. (Today, with Canada's population hovering around 33 million, that would mean an army of 2.5 million, with 250,000 dead and 700,000 wounded.) Into the stone of the Vimy Ridge Memorial in France and the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, are carved the names of more than 18,000 dead Canadians who have no known graves.

    But those kinds of numbers are still incomprehensible.


NFLD cap badge


 Caribou insignia of the Newfoundland Regiment

    Take one battalion: The Newfoundland Regiment, from England's oldest and poorest overseas colony. Of the 801 men from The Rock who left their trenches at Beaumont-Hamel just after nine the first morning of the Somme, only 69 returned to answer the roll. The dead numbered 255. Another 386 were wounded and 91 were missing. It devastated every city and outport fishing hamlet on the island, stripping it in one morning of its best. It has been said that the island, now Canada's tenth province, never really recovered.

    Even that is too big to take in.


French counterattack Fort Douaumont


 French counterattack during Verdun battles 

 Take one company of men. At bloody Verdun, where hundreds of thousands of French and German soldiers were slaughtered, there is a carefully preserved area where muzzles of rifles and rusted bayonets stick out of the dirt. Underneath each one is the body of a French poilu of the understrength 3rd Company of the 137th Infantry Regiment, entombed by shellbursts on June 11-12, 1916. No one knows exactly what happened, if they suffocated or were killed by concussion while awaiting an assault. In the Trench of Bayonets, they were obedient to the order "Ils ne passeront pas", and they remain on guard still.

    And now we're closer to the reality.




        Take one man. George Dundas was born near a tiny fishing village on Lake Erie on Oct. 27, 1890, the son of William James and Jemima Dundas. He attended elementary school in the village, later graduating from Albert College, Belleville, and Victoria College, University of Toronto. Fatefully, he also took the Canadian Officer Training Course and served in the militia.
    On Feb. 10, 1915, George Dundas enlisted in the ranks of the privately raised Eaton Machinegun Battery in Toronto. He was later commissioned in the Royal Field Artillery in England and promoted to captain.
    In March 1916, he joined the 161st Brigade of the British Expeditionary Force in France, and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry during fighting on the Somme.
    In August 1917, he was gassed and hospitalized in England, but on April 10, 1918, he went back to war. He was slightly wounded two days later, and at some point over the next few months, he was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross, again for gallantry in the face of the enemy.
    George Dundas made the last entry in his diary on Aug. 21, 1918, early in the advance from Amiens to Mons that brought the war to a halt. He was probably wounded the next day and died on Sept. 2 at age 27. He is buried in a cemetery in Daours, a village in the Department of the Somme, far from that tiny Lake Erie fishing village, far from a life that might have been, far from the promise of a future.


 First World War cemetery, France

    And that's finally the truth and the tragedy of those numbers: It all becomes personal. Family, friends, lovers, back home in world capitals like Berlin, Paris, London, Washington, Delhi, Moscow -- and even in tiny fishing villages -- all heartbroken and grieving the loss of one man.

    Multiplied ten million times.

"Did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind?
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined?
Although you died back in Nineteen-Sixteen,
To that loyal heart are you forever nineteen?..."
-- Green Fields of France, Eric Bogel

(Note: This appeared in somewhat different form on an otherwise excellent website called The Deepening, the history section of which is overseen by author Celia Hayes -- Open Salon's Sgt. Mom.)

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My great-grandfather, Robert Raymond, First Lancashire Fusiliers, died at the age of 25. His daughter, my grandmother, was 6 months old. A great and bloody lie indeed.
Outstanding!! If this isn't the stuff of covers, then what is?
I am reminded of my German professor at college, who told me about his father, who graduated from the German gymnasium in the spring or summer of 1914, one of a class of 20. 4 years later, just 5 of that class of 20 was still alive, and of those, only 3 still had both of their arms and legs.
FLW, one of the finest books I've read on the First World War is Hell's Foundations -- the story of the Royal Lanc's Bury battalion. It's chilling. If you can find a copy, I'd highly recommend it.

Scanner, thanks. There's so much good stuff on Nov. 11 out there, I doubt this'll get noticed.

Pro, it was no easier on the other side of the trenchline, that's for certain. The appalling waste....
This piece should be required reading for anyone and everyone who contemplates sending more troops to any war. Too often the fact that tragedy, in its essence is felt on a personal level.

Scanner is right.
If only this post was on the cover of Salon and the New York Times. Thank you for making us understand.
JK, I couldn't agree more.
Well written B-man. Long ago and far away, we had a home, once upon a time, that walked out into Belleau Woods where there was a shrine to WW I.

Very well done sir, unfortunately, every 15-20 years or so, politicians wanting to be the next FDR take the nation to war. It is mostly over money, oil, stupidity, like this one, and about men who fear assassination at the hands of the Military Industrial Complex as was JFK, who resisted the war, and Johnson who did not want to die at the hands of an assassin and wanted badly to be his mentor FDR, Now it is just fools like Bush and "Obama-The Great Disappointer"
We send the children to war, inadequately prepared and inadequately protected, and if they make it back, inadequately served. They go out of duty or loyalty or idealism or love but our leaders are sending them for political, economic or geographic gains. How could it ever "work"?

Definitely an EP...
Omg. My great- grandfather was FROM BURY. I will have to look for it. A couple of years ago, I wrote about him, and someone actually found his grave for me. He's buried in Belgium, and I intend to go there someday to have a few words with the man who gave me my amazing grandmother.
A brilliant post that reminds everyone who reads it that the insanity of war is often countered by the sacrifice of many who in time are relegated to grainy photos, rusted memorials and forgotten names. WWI was the war to end all wars; it was just a prelude. ~R~
This is a great post, which should get much wider viewing today. Thanks for posting it. *salute*
Thanks so much for this -- I was moved, touched and angered at the folly of men. Trench warfare was absurd -- men running into machine gun fire with virtually no protection. Insane.
As Stalin pointed out: "One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic."
For years, I couldn't comprehend theMunich Agreement of 1938. Why would Chamberlain and Daladier agree to such an obvious act of appeasement in the face of raw tyranny? But given the staggering loss of life suffered by France and England in WW I, any hope of peace must have seemed better than a return to war.

It's easy for me, a Jew born in 1950 with the benefit of absolute hindsight, to condemn them for their folly and its devastating results, but I have never seen an entire generation lost to war, Viet Nam or or other recent conflicts notwithstanding. It also makes me appreciate Churchill all the more since he had lived through the same horrors, but still knew that giving into Hitler wouldn't prevent further conflict.
I just got back from watching coverage of the Remembrance Day service from Parliament Hill. Thousands of spectators placed their poppies on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier -- the one individual who stands for all the 10 million.

Coyote, I don't know how anyone could make that decision. I couldn't.

MaryJoan, thank you.

Stellaa, they still beat the drums and wave the flags and, yes, still they march.

Prof, that must be some monument. Belleau Wood was a wretched business.

Nikki, Phil Ochs said it best: It's always the old who lead us to the wars/Always the young who fall./Now look at all we've won /with a sabre and a gun/Tell me was it worth it all....
FLW, the author is Geoffrey Moorhouse.

Chuck, you are correct. I'm involved in a research project here in this little town to collect bios of the men whose names are on the local Cenotaph. They'll be available in the Legion branch and are being serially published in the local daily. We don't want anyone to forget.

Kathy, thanks: It was important to me to write this.

And you're welcome, John. It's hard to believe what those men went through. It's a wonder any of them made it.

Jeff, about the only good that came from Munich was the chance to re-arm. It did nothing to slow the catastrophe that was unfolding in Europe.
Brilliant. Thanks for showing us how an old master does it. You made the numbers real.
Cappy, I was far more moved by your post, to tell the truth. I urge everyone here to go read it.

And if you want a real weeper, try Bringing Buddy Home by John McDermott:
Wonderfully written and infinitely sad. A fitting tribute.

You highlight beautifully why it's so important to honour the memory of so many who gave their lives for future generations. Such a sad, sad waste, yet are we learning?

A wonderful tribute indeed.
Thanks, Boa. Heartfelt and important.

Last year I wrote about the WWI cemeteries I visited in Belgium. And the remaining trenches. I recommend going to Ypres in Belgium to see the scars that remain, and the many graves. You will never forget.
Monte, that's very gracious of you considering how well you write.

Linda, Prince Charles was at the Cenotaph in Ottawa today, along with Camilla, wearing a Canadian Army uniform. I could see from his eyes he was thinking what you -- and I -- also think.

Lea, I've never been to a First War cemetery, although I went to several Second War sites with veterans. I've never forgotten it. The one that sticks in my memory is outside the French coastal city of Dieppe, where the Second Canadian Division died in August 1942. Unlike every other Commonwealth War Grave cemetery, the bodies are laid head-to-head, in German military fashion, because it was the Germans who buried more than 900 of them after the raid went horribly wrong.
it is a mystery how young men find the courage to go to certain death for the welfare of someone else
Hands down the best post I've yet read today. Should be an EP, should be cover, but then, that would be in a just world. This is what war really is, this is the lie of patriotism and nationalism uncovered.

My hat is off to you, and all those who have died in vain.
Awesome!! And rated. Tink noticed and picked.
Kathy, the sad truth is there's never been a shortage of 19-year-olds willing to lay down their lives for their country (paraphrasing Patton). Also sadly, there'll never be a shortage of politicians who are more than willing to tell them to do it. (And, yes, I'd have gone too.)

Emma, thank you for what you said. Indeed, it's the old lie -- dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Wilfred Owen was right, but the beat goes on.

A Tink pick? I am not worthy. You brighten my day, chum.
"You make the numbers real" Cap

Exactly what I was thinking. Thank you for so engagingly educating me. I ache as I read of real lives and the devastation of entire communities. You are a brilliant writer, historian and heartfelt communicator. Honored to be here.
I'm glad you found this informative, Serenity, and thanks for saying what you did. This little community and the vicinity -- fewer than 1,000 people at the time -- lost nearly 30 men in the First War. The might-have-beens are, well, endless.
Sorry I am so late getting here, but glad I did.

"ten million known dead soldiers from all sides of the conflict. The numbers are simply too large to make much sense of. "

I really can't even imagine.

Thanks, Grif. It's a pleasure to see you here (and why don't you write more often?).

That 10 million was a rounded number c 1933. Truth is ... there were more.
I'm late but I hope it's never too late to say thank you for giving me information, history, chills and renewed resolve to learn more.
Sally, a comment from you is always -- and I mean always -- appreciated. Any time, any place. Thank you.
A beautiful and important post. Thank you for it. R.
Thank you, Alysa. An abridged version of this appeared in the local weekly newspaper the other day as part of the Royal Canadian Legion's ad for Remembrance Day. I was, needless to say, very pleased.