Posted tagged ‘Veteran’s Day’

On Veterans Day

November 11, 2010

Over at Balloon Juice, I wrote yesterday of war in the abstract, of the sorrow to be read in the numbing, enormous tallies of weapons bought and sold.

Today, on Armistice Day/Veterans Day itself, it seems to me more appropriate to center on the individual experience of war that the day itself evokes.

So, with apologies for republishing old material, here’s a couple of stories from that eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month from the year 1918 — the root of memory that we revisit today:

Those final six hours of the war were surreal.  The news of the cease-fire order passed swiftly down the line, but the fighting did not stop.  U.S. Army captain Harry Truman, commanding an artillery battery, fired under orders until 10:45 a.m.  British troops were ordered forward, with instructions to achieve their objectives by eleven.  German fire persisted too.  Among those killed were British soldiers wearing the Mons star, veterans of the first battle of the war.  Within the German lines, troops waited for news of the negotiations in the midst of preparations for a last battle.  Early that morning Georg Bucher went to his company commander to beg for more machine gun ammunition.   At 7:15, an attack came; Bucher’s machine guns broke it up before the Americans facing him reached his barbed wire.  His company’s casualties were light.  One new recruit went down with a chemical burn.  Bucher comforted him by telling him how much worse it could have been, how he could have lost his leg.  “The youngster seemed, God knew why, to find comfort in my words,” Bucher wrote. At that moment, Bucher’s company commander returned, leaping along like a mad man, shouting “Cease fire at eleven a.m..  Pass the word along, cease fire at eleven.”

__

Hearing that, Bucher wrote, “all we could think of was how to survive the next three hours.”  But within minutes, the neighboring  section of the line came under artillery fire, though Bucher knew the Americans across no-man’s land must have heard the news too.  Soldiers of proven courage began to waver, gathering their gear for flight.  At 10:30, the wounded newcomer cheered up, calling out the time left.  As he spoke, the allied artillery shifted aim, and began to shell Bucher’s position.  Gas came next, and “everyone cowered in the shelters with clenched hands.  The thought that death might overtake them a hundred times in that last half hour had completely unnerved them.”  The shelling died down, and the gas lifted.  Bucher and his company returned to the forward trench, grenades and rifles at the ready to repel any last charge.  At ten minutes to the hour, he stared over the parapet, watching the shell smoke drift in the breeze.  There was still just time for something to happen.  Time ticked on.  He stared at his watch.  The hand moved.  It was over.

Bucher’s experience was representative, but he did not experience the ultimate evil the war had to offer in those last hours and minutes.  There was one incident that captured the essence of war on the western front, the distillation of its arbitrary violence.

There was one incident that captured the essence of war on the western front, the distillation of its arbitrary violence.  At two minutes to eleven in the vicinity of Mons a Canadian private named George Price was hit by a sniper’s bullet.  He died instantly.  The man who killed him remains unknown.  That man made a choice.  He was a marksman, a skilled soldier.  He had just moments remaining in which it was legal for him to kill.  There was no need to fire, no purpose, and some risk at least to himself and any comrades near him.  If he waited until eleven, and then put his gun down, the only consequence would be that a young stranger would go home.   Instead, the shot rang out.  Two minutes ticked past.  The war ended.  George Price lay dead.

This passage comes from Einstein in Berlin, a book I published a few years ago.  Bucher told his tale in his memoir, In the Line, 1914-1918 published in England in 1932; Martin Gilbert wrote about the death of George Price in his one volume history, The First World War.

__

I’ve never served.  I’ve reported on one war, that parody of imperial ambitions in collision that was the Falklands conflict of 1982.  I say “reported” — but I was doing so from the safety and comfort of London, talking to Green Jackets in Whitehall and going for lunch with men who sold Rapier missiles to the armed services. No risk of dulce et decorum for me.

__

That little fight was memorialized in this, my favorite — if that’s the word — recent song to capture the pity and misery of war.
__


__

Wars are only little from the outside, of course.  A friend of mine lost her brother, a member of the SAS, in a quiet op on West Falkland.  I was with him on the farm to which he had long since retired from the Royal Artillery when my uncle learned that a brother officer had just been killed in Northern Ireland.  The son of a  member (when on this side of the water) of my synagogue died in the last days of perhaps the most pointless conflict in recent memory, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006.  I have thoughts of them in my heart right now. You, I’m sure, have yours.

Not to be forgotten — them, or this:

There are no small wars.

And with that, I’ll leave this as it stands, but for one last thought.  I think this is a subject and a day for memory, not for politics.

So without naming names, let me just say that when I recall George Price, shot down for…what? Fun? Because he was there?… I cringe every time I hear any valiant keyboard kommandos baying for wars they will not fight nor begin to imagine.

That is not OK.

Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

[cross posted at Balloon Juice]

Image: Royal Irish Rifles ration party, 1 July, 1916 (probably) — the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Veteran’s Day — nee Armistice Day — poem and remembrance

November 11, 2008

Update: Check out Lovable Liberal’s remembrance too.

Michael D. over at Balloon Juice has dredged up the inevitable In Flanders Fields as a token of memory on this sad day.

I have to confess I hate John McCrae’s poem because of the third verse, with its appropriating of the dead to keep the torch burning that consumed so many young men in a truly pointless and brutally mis-led war.  It’s home-front poetry, for all that it was written by a man who fought and died in the conflict — by which I mean that it plays on the familiar tropes of glory and honor deemed suitable for the consumption of those gentlemen and ladies then a-bed safely removed from the horror and squalor of the trenches.*

In the comment thread, one reader offers up Owen’s equally famous Dulce et Decorum Est as an antidote — and it certainly does offer the honest soldier’s counter argument:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

For my part, two thoughts:  first to McCrae himself.  The poem was born of his direct experience that was fully immersed in the bloody and in-the-moment pointlessness of the war as anything Owen wrote.  Read the story of how the poem came to be here.  The third verse that so offends me?…I have no doubt that it was truly felt, the more so that the poem was written in the spring of 1915 — the first full campaign season in the trenches — and before the grinding fact of the four-year meatgrinder could fully crush its schoolboy bravado.  In any event, he was there, he saw what he saw and felt what he felt, and he gets to express that emotion any way he damn pleases.

It’s the use of the poem by those who have not earned that authority in the same way that gets me, especially now, in the wake of five years of war when my friends on the other side of keyboard wars have so often called for sacrifices as long as others make them.  Maybe I’m the one fighting old battles here, in the new world after November 4, 2008, but I don’t think so.

(Note that I haven’t even begun to write about the collective criminal folly that permitted the trenches to consume so many men for so long.  For a lucid professional’s take on that question, the best place to start is the classic:  B.H. Liddell Hart’s seminal work Strategy.  My own take on it can be found in, interspersed with other stuff, in chapters 3-12 of this book.**)

Second thought:  here is one more poem just to make sure that I  drive home the point about the cost of stupid decisions in war.

This is another by Wilfred Owen, much less well known, perhaps less well made than Dulce…. but in its own way yet more wrenching:

S. I. W.

“I will to the King,
And offer him consolation in his trouble,
For that man there has set his teeth to die,
And being one that hates obedience,
Discipline, and orderliness of life,
I cannot mourn him.”
W. B. Yeats.

Patting goodbye, doubtless they told the lad
He’d always show the Hun a brave man’s face;
Father would sooner him dead than in disgrace, —
Was proud to see him going, aye, and glad.
Perhaps his Mother whimpered how she’d fret
Until he got a nice, safe wound to nurse.
Sisters would wish girls too could shoot, charge, curse, . . .
Brothers — would send his favourite cigarette,
Each week, month after month, they wrote the same,
Thinking him sheltered in some Y.M. Hut,
Where once an hour a bullet missed its aim
And misses teased the hunger of his brain.
His eyes grew old with wincing, and his hand
Reckless with ague. Courage leaked, as sand
From the best sandbags after years of rain.
But never leave, wound, fever, trench-foot, shock,
Untrapped the wretch. And death seemed still withheld
For torture of lying machinally shelled,
At the pleasure of this world’s Powers who’d run amok.

He’d seen men shoot their hands, on night patrol,
Their people never knew. Yet they were vile.
“Death sooner than dishonour, that’s the style!”
So Father said.

One dawn, our wire patrol
Carried him. This time, Death had not missed.
We could do nothing, but wipe his bleeding cough.
Could it be accident? — Rifles go off . . .
Not sniped? No. (Later they found the English ball.)

It was the reasoned crisis of his soul.
Against the fires that would not burn him whole
But kept him for death’s perjury and scoff
And life’s half-promising, and both their riling.

With him they buried the muzzle his teeth had kissed,
And truthfully wrote the Mother “Tim died smiling.”

*There is no shortage of great prose accounts of the disasters of the Western Front.  The first I read were by two of the War Poets — Robert Graves, in Goodbye To All That, and Siegfried Sasoon in his trilogy collected under the title George Sherston’s Memoirs, now out of print.  The central work of the trilogy, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, can still be found.

**Here’s a passage from my attempt to capture the relentless pointlessness of the so-called Great War at the level of the battlefield.  The incident described took place 90 years ago to the day.

There was one incident that captured the essence of war on the western front, the distillation of its arbitrary violence.  At two minutes to eleven in the vicinity of Mons a Canadian private named George Price was hit by a sniper’s bullet.  He died instantly.  The man who killed him remains unknown.  That man made a choice.  He was a marksman, a skilled soldier.  He had just moments remaining in which it was legal for him to kill.  There was no need to fire, no purpose, and some risk at least to himself and any comrades near him.  If he waited until eleven, and then put his gun down, the only consequence would be that a young stranger would go home.   Instead, the shot rang out.  Two minutes ticked past.  The war ended.  George Price lay dead.

Image:  Red Poppies at the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium.  Photograph taken on March 11, 2006.