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.
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.
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.
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 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.
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined?
Although you died back in Nineteen-Sixteen,
To that loyal heart are you forever nineteen?..."
(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.)