War is Hell, but there are Many Levels of Hell

One of the lowest levels of hell was the Western Front in World War I.  I have spent a good part of the past few weeks traveling the Somme and the Marne in France and the Ypres salient in Belgium, trying to make sense of senseless sacrifice and slaughter. 

But nothing prepares even the most battle-hardened soldier to fathom the slaughter, the savagery, and the complete destruction of men, machines, horses, and vegetation along the entire 440 miles of the Western Front from the North Sea to Switzerland.

Between the Central Powers (Germany & Austria-Hungary) and the Allies, 70 million men and women, mostly young men, were involved in the conflict. 

Between 5 and 6 million horses were deployed in the early years. 

15 European nations were combatants, including neutral nations like Belgium, overrun by the German army simply because it was the easiest geographic path to flank the French, as well as Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Indians, South Africans and, late in the war, the USA.

9 million men were killed in action. 

Another 21 million were wounded.  We may think these were the lucky ones, except… this was the first war where youthful patriotism and bravado encountered the efficient new killing and maiming machines of the 20th century: poison gas, tank warfare, aircraft and aircraft carriers, massive artillery, submarines and machine guns.  These weapons left vast swaths of the post-war population horribly disfigured, mentally lost to us, or both. 

At least 7 million civilians were killed.

Yet another 8 million soldiers were taken prisoner or are simply listed as “missing.”  100 years later we know these “missing” are in the more than 2000 war cemeteries in France and Belgium – yes, 2000 – where, for row upon row, the headstones too often read some variation of “An English (or American, Australian or South African, etc.) Soldier, Known Only to God.”  These cemeteries are lovingly tended by employees of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission or the American Battle Monuments Commission, along with local citizens, and are complete with fresh flowers and plants, as if it were only yesterday that the young lads who lie here were interred.  God bless them all for remembering.

I cannot speak personally to the valor and fortitude of the German side because there is little record in France and Belgium of their deeds.  The victors write history.  But it must have equaled that of the Allies because the battles were vicious and intense -- as only those fighting for a cause and their comrades-in-arms can fight.  I do know the Allied troops fought valiantly in a war that was itself less than valorous.  Unlike WWII, an existentially necessary war to stop the “1000-year Reich” from becoming a reality, WWI was a last gasp of European monarchs who sacrificed the flower of their nations out of personal pique, the extension of empire, and entangling alliances. 

The sickening carnage that followed happened because of many additional, more complex reasons, but this was the logic, or illogic, of the times.  The real tragedies took place not in monarchs’ palaces, however, but on the ground.  In England and the rest of the British Empire, scores or hundreds of young men formed “Pals” battalions, where those who had worked or played together would enlist together, train together, fight together and ultimately die together.  Whole villages and towns in England and the Commonwealth lost every single male who’d gone to war in one single day, week, or battle.  Their towns never recovered from the agony of the loss of all its erstwhile workers, sons, husbands and fathers.  

After the first year of a war that both sides believed would be over in three to four months, the combatants settled into defensive positions of trenches, mines and barbed war, separated by a No Man’s Land bereft of vegetation.   In winter and spring, men and horses were mired in muck, sitting or standing in freezing mud and water up to their shins.  Until they were ordered over the top... 

July 1st 1916, along the Somme:  British and French infantry emerged from their trenches – directly into the maw of German machine gunners, barbed wire and mines.  Never before or since has Britain suffered such a catastrophe:

100,000 inexperienced troops, mostly from Pals Battalions, went into battle.  By the end of that day, more than 20,000 were killed and another 40,000 were wounded, leaving just 4 men out of every 10 still in the ranks. 

32 battalions with an average strength of 800 men had lost more than 500 each. 

The Newfoundlanders saw 322 men die and 386 lie wounded in heaps at the gaps in the barbed wire during their first 30 minutes of combat. Only 110 men in the regiment were unscathed.

The Aussies, the Kiwis, the South Africans, all, fared no better.   

In the 100 days that followed in this one small area 475,000 more soldiers died. 

Later, the Americans fared little better.  Of some 300,000 troops deployed, more than 60,000 were killed or wounded.

What to make of the patriotism and bravery of such men, going over the top and over the lifeless bodies of their best friends to do their duty?  We can only salute them for their courage and their conviction.  After the United States entered the war, it became part of US Marine Corps lore that Captain Lloyd Williams, told by a French officer to retreat as the Marines reinforced the French along the Marne in the face of a vicious German offensive, replied, “Retreat?  Hell, we just got here!”  Such courage.  Such insouciance.  Regrettably, Capt. Williams did not survive that battle. 

One who did was then-Gunnery Sgt Dan Daly, one of only two men to receive the Medal of Honor for two separate conflicts and who, at the Battle for Belleau Wood, a tactical nightmare, got his squad to move into withering machine gun fire by imploring, “Come on, you sons of bitches – do you want to live forever?”  Ah, Americans.

The courage of all these men from all these nations is beyond mere admiration.  Such courage should be rewarded, be successful, point to a fine outcome.  But in this conflict, for either side, such was not to be the case. 

Instead, we are left to try to ensure this level of deprivation, disability, death and destruction never happens again.  War may be necessary but, please, not war like this.  Not for these fleeting reasons and on this horrible scale.  We must find the very idea abhorrent.  Of course we must remember each of these  brave boys on this American Memorial Day and teach this important piece of history to all who have followed – not history lite, not history as determined by today’s top issues, but history, raw and real.

I understand this war took place 100 years ago and in today’s new-device-a-year society, even 10 years ago is so very “yesterday.” This was brought home yet again in a conversation I had in Paris on VE Day this year.  I asked a group of 20-somethings to direct me to where I believed a remembrance was being held. 

They responded, “What are you talking about?  There is no celebration for some old war.  You must mean the Fete de l’Europe… we talk about climate change and social diversity and have some good bands like Say Yes Dog.” 

“But this war was a threat to the very existence of your nation; you speak French today, not German, only because your grandfathers fought and died in this ‘old war.’”

They shrugged and said, “Man, that’s like a hundred years ago.  Who cares any more?”

Fortunately, many people do.  I have visited tiny villages in Luxembourg which raise the American flag every VE Day and it still brings a tear to my eye as the young children solemnly take flowers to the flagpole holding their tiny American flags.

In Ieper (Ypres,) Belgium, in gratitude to those who defended their city, the residents and visiting Allied soldiers have, every single day since 11 November 1929, except during the time of German re-occupation in WWII, held a Last Post ceremony to commemorate those who gave their lives in defense of Ieper.  Looking at the tens of thousands of names of the missing inscribed there, these wonderful Belgians, and others who choose never to forget, bring to life the courage and sacrifice of these long-ago young men who never saw their thirtieth year – and many never their twentieth.   (My wife and I had the honor this year of placing a wreath and rendering a slow salute to these departed souls.)

We must never forget the devastating end of the 7 boys who signed up from that small village in Derbyshire, the Pals from the contiguous farms in New Zealand, the Americans from Iowa who died in fields like those back home, and the millions who enlisted on all sides who entered the fray with good heart and steadfast devotion and came out of it scarred forever or, worse, never came home. 

Only by remembering do we have the knowledge and the courage to say, “Not this time.  Not again.  For God’s sake, not ever again.”

Mr. Shaefer, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general, is a senior geopolitical consultant with Omnis Inc.

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