Today, November 11th, is Veteran’s Day. Not coincidentally, it’s also 100 years since the First World War ended. In the United States, the day was originally proclaimed Armistice Day by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, but the official federal holiday was renamed Veteran’s Day in 1954 to honor not only those who served in WWI, but all those who had served their country.
It may be useful to first put some perspective on how much time has passed since the first Armistice Day. One hundred years may seem like a long time ago, but is it?
Most people can wrap their heads around their own ages, but not longer periods of time. For example, if you’re 30 years old, you probably have a fair idea of how long a time 30 years is, but 100 years is hard to fathom because you haven’t personally experienced it.
To get a better grip on time and history, let’s use the time we have experience with (our age) as a sort of measuring stick. Let’s say you were born in 1958. That would make you 60 years old. If you’re 60, you understand that span of time and it probably doesn’t seem too long to you, but 100 years is still hard to comprehend. Try this: take the year you were born and subtract 60, which leaves 1898. Imagine if you were born in 1898. You were eligible for the draft in 1916, and of age to serve in WWI. Just by doubling the amount of time you are familiar with, you’ve reached back in time. If 60 doesn’t seem that long to you, then twice that shouldn’t either.
You’re not 60? Repeat the process for your actual age. If you’re now 50 (born in ’68), had you been born fifty years earlier, in 1918, you could have served in WWII.
Are you 45 (born in 1973)? Then imagine you were born 45 years earlier, in 1928, and served in the Korean war.
If you’re now 40 (born in ’78), you could have served in Vietnam if you had actually been born in 1938.
Hopefully this exercise helps you better understand that the wars of the previous century (and of course, the wars of this century) were not really all that long ago, and the veterans who served in those wars were real people no different than you or I, just born earlier. Veterans were ordinary people who risked their lives, both in peacetime and war. And no matter when they served, it was not that long ago.
I hope I haven’t lost you with this mental exercise. I want you to be able to relate to the veterans of the past and think, “that could have been me” that went through that hell.
Before the men of the First World War went through hell, they lived in an exciting and optimistic era. Think what life must have been like for many people living in Europe and North America just prior to 1914. It was the golden age of inventions and machines. Steam engines were highly developed and serving transportation needs on railroads, oceans, and waterways. Automobiles were a more recent development that were becoming more reliable and common. Travel had never been easier or faster. Electricity powered light bulbs, telegraphs, telephones, radios, mysterious x-rays, and many other marvelous (and often dubious) new gadgets. The airplane was still a curiosity and human flight was a very big deal, the usefulness of which was hotly debated. Great progress was being made in medicine, science, and engineering. Pathogens and their role in illness were becoming understood. Pasteurization had in recent decades become a common means to ensure food safety. Sanitation was rapidly improving with sewer systems and indoor plumbing becoming the norm, at least in urban and suburban areas.
The same technical advances that brought these peacetime wonders also brought about devices and machinery that took war making to an unimagined level of nightmarish efficiency; machine guns, giant cannons, flamethrowers, chemical weapons, armored tanks, submarines, bombers and fighter aircraft.
When “The War That Will End War” was ramping up in 1914, there was excitement, enthusiasm, even jubilation. Young men couldn’t wait to join up for the fight. They had no idea what lay ahead, waiting for them.
When the fighting started, the high command of each nation anticipated quick victory, having great confidence in the power and efficiency of their new war machines. They did not seem to anticipate that the enemy would pose an equal and opposite force, which the enemy did in most of the major theatres.
On the Western Front (the most famous theatre of the war), the Allies fought the invading Central Powers to a standstill. The troops in the field were forced to dig holes in the ground to find cover from enemy fire. The holes became trenches, and the trenches became huge complexes consisting of front lines, supply and reinforcement trenches, fall-back trenches, and so on. Ultimately there were hundreds of miles of trenches on each side of No Man’s Land. The trenches had to be deep enough that men could walk upright without exposing their heads to the enemy. That’s a lot of digging troops had to do, usually under fire.
With combatants on both sides dug in, it was a stalemate that lasted four years. Life in the trenches was… absolutely miserable. The men on the front lines had almost no shelter from the elements, the summer heat, and the winter cold. They literally lived in the dirt. When it rained (and it rained a lot due to the influence artillery smoke has on forming rain clouds), the trenches became mud pits that frequently filled with water in which the men had to stand. As a result, it was nearly impossible for a soldier to keep his feet dry. Flesh that was wet for too long would begin to rot. Trench foot was common, often requiring amputation.
If that wasn’t bad enough, sanitation at the front was abysmal. The dead bodies of soldiers and animals often could not be retrieved from No Man’s Land. Artillery would frequently pound the area, obliterating the dead and turning bone fragments into shrapnel. There were rats in the trench works, which of course spread disease through their excrement. Soldiers used dogs to try to eradicate the rodents, probably without much success.
Many attempts were made by both sides to advance and seize or overrun enemy lines. Such a breakthrough, it was believed, could end the stalemate and end the war. And so it was that each side frequently attempted to overcome the other. Attacks were preceded by heavy artillery shelling. Shell shock became a thing. Sometimes chemical weapons were used in addition to or instead of artillery to soften the defenses. These weapons (known as ‘gas’) could blind, burn, or make the victim slowly and painfully drown from fluid-filled lungs.
Once the artillery stopped, the infantry scrambled out of their trenches to run across No Man’s Land, charging into heavy machine gun fire. It was suicidal.
This went on for four years. Millions of soldiers and civilians died worldwide. Estimates vary with up to 20 million total deaths, and well over 20 million soldiers wounded.
Hundreds of thousands of horses (perhaps millions according to some estimates) also died, as the armies of both sides used the animals in various capacities other than as cavalry.
After the war, hundreds of thousands of men needed prosthetics to conceal war injuries. Arms and legs were common, but everything from ears and eyes and large parts of a man’s face were also fitted.
I’ve not even scratched the surface of the hardships faced and sacrifices made by veterans in just one war. Those who served in other wars, and peacetime too, also faced hardship and made sacrifices that should be no less considered.
If you know a vet, please thank them for their service.
Peter Jackson (of Lord Of The Rings movie trilogy fame) has created a documentary based on WWI footage that looks very interesting. The documentary is called They Shall Not Grow Old (Wingnut Films/IWM) and will be shown on BBC (in the UK, at least) as a tribute marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the war. Eventually it will be released and available elsewhere, I’m sure. A seven minute YouTube video describing They Shall Not Grow Old is available: https://youtu.be/YRQA5R_bRRw