When the guns fell silent …

Ninety eight years ago tomorrow, on the 11th hour of the 11th month of the 11th day of 1918, the guns of the Great War fell silent. Here in America it used to be known as Armistice Day, but now it’s known as Veteran’s Day. In England it’s known as Remembrance Day.

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The Great War had many firsts: It was the first war fought in the air in a significant way. It saw the first general use of machine guns in more than sporatic fashion, much to the sadness of the troops, for the tactics used were of the 18th century whereas the weapons were of the modern age. Frontal assaults upon deeply dug trenches, well-defended positions equipped with machine guns, was madness, but the generals didn’t see that, didn’t understand until much too late. And the slaughter was at a level truly unimaginable, running into the millions, no one really knows how many. And not just soldiers. In Verdun alone there is an ossuary adjacent to the ruins of Fort Douaumont that contains the bones of over 200,000 civilians, stacked rather than buried because the body parts were so scattered that the bodies could not be put back together after they’d been plucked from the mud. And Douaumont itself? See for yourself in the photos below, before and after. Obliterated. Obliterated like the nine towns in France that were lost completely and could never be rebuilt. Entire towns pounded to flat rubble by artillery. French farmers die every year when they plow their fields and detonate old unexploded shells that had been fired almost a century before. I’ve walked over the ground. Even now, the ground still has deep overlapping shell holes as far as the eye can see. The French government posts the land, for the unexploded ordnance is still dangerous to the unsuspecting tourist.

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The US lost roughly (all of the casualty numbers are ‘rough’, as many men just disappeared in the rain of hell known as artillery barrages) 100,000 men. Compare that if you will to the losses of the first day of the Somme, when the Brits alone lost over 56,000 men. In one day. Let me repeat that. In … one … day. It’s a number unimaginable. I used to work at a shipyard and I remember shift change when hundreds of people would walk in and out when the steam whistles screamed. At that time there were just under 30,000 employees who worked there. When I compared that number to the casualties of the Somme my heart crushed. Almost twice the number of people that worked in that shipyard were lost on the Somme by just the British … in one day. If you’re a student at university, think of every person on campus being slaughtered in one day. The thought, if you have any empathy at all, takes away the power of thought.

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This was not glory, though the exploits of individuals like Sargent York were legendary. No, this was carnage, this was industrialized murder, fought all over the world from the muddy fields of Europe to the plains of Africa and beyond. I purposefully avoided posting the most awful photos in my possession, they’re not suitable for general consumption where children could possibly see them. I leave it to your imagination to visualize what happens when a body literally disappears under the blast of an artillery shell.

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It was the first truly ‘world’ war, with peoples from all over being drawn into the carnage. It was the dividing line between the end of the old world and the beginning of the new. Old royals and aristocracies fell, to be replaced by republics of various types, the end of the era when the general population trusted their leaders to look out for them. No one was immune, even Theodore Roosevelt lost his son Kermit, killed whilst flying as a fighter pilot. The US still has thousands buried there, in a cemetery at Montfaucon in France, the white marble crosses bear mute testimony to their sacrifice.

You will see the symbol of the poppy used in remembrance. That is because after the carnage, poppies were about the only thing that would grow in the battlefields. I wear my pin every year.

I know this is not a pleasant post. It’s not meant to be. But, like the Holocaust, the Great War is something never to be forgotten, a lesson bought hard by horrible deaths of innocents. If you would, at 11:00 am tomorrow morning, just stop, think, and imagine the thunder of guns falling silent, leaving a ringing stillness in the air.

It’s time to end this post and if I might be allowed to paraphrase the movie ‘Shenandoah’, I think Jimmy Stewart’s character said it best, when he says about war, ‘The politicians praise it, the undertakers win it, and the soldiers just want to go home.’

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Anniversary of D-Day Invasion

I know this sounds lazy, and it may very well be, but the post I did last year for the anniversary of D-Day still sounds right to me. I would just like to add that the D-Day invasion was not just or mostly performed by Americans. Brave men from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, the Netherlands,  and Norway (and I’m certain others that I don’t know about) all faced down the fires of hell for us. So here it is again:

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“… I want to tell you what the opening of the second front entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.” Ernie Pyle, June 12, 1944

On June 6th, 1944, Operation Overlord, the start of the invasion of German-occupied France, began. In one night and a day, 175,000 fighting men traversed the one hundred nautical miles of the English Channel and landed upon the beaches of Normandy. Transported with them were 50,000 vehicles on 5,333 ships supported by 11,000 airplanes. Stephen Ambrose states that it was as if the entire cities of Green Bay, Racine and Kenosha, Wisconsin were picked up and moved, every man, woman, child and automobile, to the east side of Lake Michigan, in one night. Most were not professional soldiers, they were kids that had signed up after Pearl Harbor or were drafted. They were citizen soldiers, folks like us, personally unacquainted with violent death. That did not last. Company A of the 116th Regiment, the first ashore at Omaha, suffered over 90 percent casualties.

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The beaches bristled with obstacles, mines, mortars, machine guns and artillery like the dreaded 88mm cannon that had been adapted to almost every conceivable use from shelling infantry positions to antiaircraft fire. Rommel had  designed the defenses and he did his job well.

I have stood on Omaha beach. It is broad and flat and the idea of stumbling ashore weighted down with gear, bullets whizzing by like bumblebees, blood splattering the air and soaking the water, and people screaming all around is beyond my poor ability to comprehend and I have a pretty good imagination. I have stood at Pointe du Hoc and wondered just how in the world the Rangers climbed that vertical cliff face under fire. I have stood in front of the monument to the missing at Omaha, seen my own name carved in the stone and wondered what happened to my namesake.

It is beyond imagining.

So as the 6th passes by, please take a moment to remember. Remember the terrible sacrifices of very brave men for the simple principle of freedom, the ability to speak your mind and go where you choose. It is good that we are reminded from time to time of just how important that is.

 

 

70th anniversary of June 6th, 1944, D-day

I know this sounds lazy, and it may very well be, but the post I did last year for the anniversary of D-Day still sounds right to me. So here it is again:

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“… I want to tell you what the opening of the second front entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.” Ernie Pyle, June 12, 1944

On June 6th, 1944, Operation Overlord, the start of the invasion of German-occupied France, began. In one night and a day, 175,000 fighting men traversed the one hundred nautical miles of the English Channel and landed upon the beaches of Normandy. Transported with them were 50,000 vehicles on 5,333 ships supported by 11,000 airplanes. Stephen Ambrose states that it was as if the entire cities of Green Bay, Racine and Kenosha, Wisconsin were picked up and moved, every man, woman, child and automobile, to the east side of Lake Michigan, in one night. Most were not professional soldiers, they were kids that had signed up after Pearl Harbor or were drafted. They were citizen soldiers, folks like us, personally unacquainted with violent death. That did not last. Company A of the 116th Regiment, the first ashore at Omaha, suffered over 90 percent casualties.

Image

The beaches bristled with obstacles, mines, mortars, machine guns and artillery like the dreaded 88mm cannon that had been adapted to almost every conceivable use from shelling infantry positions to antiaircraft fire. Rommel had  designed the defenses and he did his job well.

I have stood on Omaha beach. It is broad and flat and the idea of stumbling ashore weighted down with gear, bullets whizzing by like bumblebees, blood splattering the air and soaking the water, and people screaming all around is beyond me and I have a pretty good imagination. I have stood at Pointe du Hoc and wondered just how in the world the Rangers climbed that vertical cliff face under fire. I have stood in front of the monument to the missing at Omaha, seen my own name carved in the stone and wondered what happened to my namesake.

It is beyond imagining.

So as the 6th passes by, please take a moment to remember. Remember the terrible sacrifices of very brave men for the simple principle of freedom, the ability to speak your mind and go where you choose. It is good that we are reminded from time to time of just how important that is.