Last November, our country and the world observed the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice ending World War I. World War I – the war that probably should not have happened, the war whose aftermath reassigned European borders, eliminated centuries-old monarchies, established the United States as a world power and led an embittered German corporal to launch a campaign that would lead to him being the chancellor of Germany, and all the horror that evolved from that.
Last December, we celebrated our son’s fiftieth birthday. My husband and son have been avid readers of history for a very long time. We had a party on the weekend of his birthday but we felt that this birthday called for more of a marking, something more special. In our house, wars and military history had been a source of fascination for a very long time. Being history buffs, the one thing that my son and husband had talked about over the years was a trip to the sites of the World War I battles. So with the convergence of these two milestones -the armistice and our son’s birthday – the idea of traveling to the sites of the First World War emerged and soon the planning was underway.
For us as a family, including our grandkids (this, not the first venue one necessarily thinks of when vacationing with a nine and eleven year old – more about this in a later blog), this was not going to be an average vacation. It wasn’t going to mean just setting an itinerary, buying a plane ticket, taking some guided tours and ooh-ing and aah-ing over things that we saw. This was going to be an epic, emotional journey. I’m an avid reader of many things but I’m not much of a student of military history. If I’m going to read about a war, I would rather that it be the letters, shared with me by a friend, between a son and his mother written from the Front in 1917. This humanizes the story for me. Very aware of the gap in my subject matter knowledge, if we were going to hire a credible guide, I knew I was going to need to turn myself into a credible participant. This adventure we were going to embark upon required homework, reading up and trying to become familiar about this complex topic. I knew in broad brush strokes that this was a war for which there does not seem to be much concensus about why it was fought, but ultimately it was responsible for an unthinkable number of deaths. In addition, the ramifications of that war and its aftermath were the underpinnings of the the rise of Hitler and the Second World War. The United States was a latecomer to World War I, having joined its allies in April 1917, but was essential to ending it and indeed, this war seems to have solidified the United States’ place in the world. More than 2 million U.S. soldiers fought in the battlefields, under Major General John Pershing’s command.
Our planning for this trip continued for about six months. We hired our guide to be with us for the five days that we would be moving from place to place along the way.
This is not an essay to explain the reasons for this war, nor to introduce the time and thinking leading up to it. For that I’ll refer you to books on the subject such as “Guns of August” (1962) by Barbara Tuchman and “The First World War” by John Keegan. A wonderful remembrance article in the Smithsonian (October 2018) elicited the following observations about how the war came about: John Keegan in his aforementioned book called the war “a tragic, unnecessary conflict.” Some described the war as one of “defense and self protection” given that Germany was threatening to overtake France. Philosopher Bertrand Russell apparently commented that “Anticipation of carnage was delightful to something like ninety percent of the population.” Trotsky apparently remarked that “for people whose lives, day in and day out, pass in a monotony of hopelessness, the alarm of mobilization breaks into their lives like a promise.” Boredom, was that the cause? Others cite diplomatic incompetence, hubris, or the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Some lay the cause in the lap of Kaiser Wilhelm with his “insecurites and military fetish.” Twelve years after the war ended, British military historian Liddell Hart made the case against the Kaiser bluntly, “By the distrust and alarm which his bellicose utterances and attitude created everywhere, he filled Europe with gunpowder.” All of these perspectives are still matters of debate today.
We hired a wonderful well-versed, very flexible guide who stayed with us for the five days of our journey. By training, he had been a math teacher in England, but spent much of his time becoming a military historian and author, specifically regarding World War I. He was extremely well-informed not only about names, dates and places, but background and idiosyncratic vignettes that happened during the course of the war. In the five days, our Itinerary included France starting with Arras and the Pas-de-Calais, the Somme Valley, the Marne Valley; West Flanders and Ypres in Belgium; back in France, we visited Douaumont, Belleau Wood, Chateau Thierry, and finally, Verdun and Argonne Meuse (which my son characterized as the most “raw” of all the sites), all areas where the most important fighting took place. This sounds like covering a lot of ground and we did, but it was very manageable, moving from place to place. We actually stayed in only 2 different hotels along this part of the trip and drove between the sites on a day to day basis. Again, here is where our guide was invaluable since he set the daily itinerary to make sure we made the best use of our time and he knew the roads so there was no backtracking due to getting lost.
As we proceeded along the Front, I was taken with the beauty of the countrysides along the way, the sloping hills, tranquil rivers and villages. All is now indeed quiet on the Western Front. We visited on beautiful, peaceful days, looking at the very places that endured such mayhem, chaos and tragedy 100 years ago. Belleau Wood is now a serene meadow with its 100-year old trees. When we visited, birds were singing overhead.
The Somme Valley, now idyllic, is also the site of the bloodiest battle of the Western Front. In fact the Battle of the Somme which began on July 1, 1916 (The Battle of Albert) is characterized as the darkest day in the history of the British Army. Nearly 60,000 men would become casualties by sunset that day. And indeed at the Thiepval Memorial at the Somme, listed are the names of 72,104 British and South African men killed there who have no known grave. All in all, there were 620,000 British and French casualties at the Somme, with another 600,000 killed or wounded Germans .
In 1914, some of the first clashs between the Germans and the British happened around the town of Ypres, in Belgian Flanders, which would remain a battlefield for the rest of the war. We toured the battlefield of Passchendaele where another 70,000 British soldiers were killed and 170,000 wounded. These are staggering numbers. In the center of Ypres, on a Sunday evening we observed the Last Post military ceremony at the Menin Gate, which every evening at 8 p.m. honors the British soldiers who died in and around Ypres with a very moving bugle call.
In Douaumont, a magnificent edifice, the Ossuary in Douaumont, holds the skeletal remains of 130,000 soldiers killed during the Battle of Verdun and who could not be identified. Walking around the outside, you can see at ground level, windows showing the bones of the dead. You see the sheer volume of those who could not be identified.
Why were there so many unknowns in this war? One explanation could be that early in the war, the soldiers wore metal dog tags, but it was found that, if injured, the metal tags often tore up soldiers’ chests, creating another wound with which to deal. It was decided to change to cloth dog tags which of course disintegrated if the soldier was left for a time in the wet fields. Some, if they were identified at all, were identified through their battalion insignias on their headgear or sleeves.
Arras (pronounced Ar-RAS) today is a charming city. Its center is a lovely large town square called the Place des Heros, encircled by Flemish facades, restaurants, shops. The Battle of Arras was originally intended to be a diversionary assault on a larger French offensive. But the battle grew in size and scope and essentially was involved for the full expanse of the war.
Again, the sheer number of graves we saw was incomprehensible. Also striking was the vast amount of crosses and Stars of David with no names. I can’t adequately describe to you the enormity of this – field after field of gravesites. It seemed around every corner, no matter our location along the Front, there was a monument and a sea of graves.
More than 61,000 Canadians (Canadian War Museum) gave their lives during the First World War. The Canadian National Vimy Memorial in a commune in the Pas-de-Calais department in Northern France is one of the most impressive we saw. It is dedicated to the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Canadian soldiers who were killed there. Carved into the walls of the monument are the names of about 11,285 Canadians who died in France and whose final resting place was unknown. In addition there are 30 other war cemeteries within a 12 mile radius of this Canadian Memorial. It is said that even today if those fields were excavated, more bones would still be uncovered. But digging is not done because uncharged munitions would also be found.
I have to say that what also struck me about the various monuments we saw, was the magnificence and the sheer beauty of them. These were not afterthought monuments. They are majestic, breathtaking structures, showing the will and commitment of the country to honor the war dead that once the architect was chosen, the vast amount of money was found to build them to bring the monument to fruition.
When I could no longer stand it, grave after grave, in my frustration and naivete I asked, why when they knew that the war was so ill conceived didn’t the plug get pulled to stop the carnage, to end the war (sounds like Viet Nam 50 years later, doesn’t it?). It seemed it just strung along until finally, due largely to the food shortages caused by the Allied blockade, the failure of a Spring Offensive and the loss of its allies in mid to late 1918, Germany surrendered and the Armistice finally was signed on the 11th day of November, 1918 at the 11th hour.
What had I learned about the Great War? That it seems a war that had at best a tenuous mandate for occuring at all. That from 1914 to 1918, millions of men fought each other across a brutal 475-mile long “No Man’s Land” that stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border. In 1919, France, like many other European countries, suffered from the ravages of WWI. Many towns and villages were completely destroyed and devastated. Interestingly, a number of the monarchies who advocated for the war, sewed the seeds of their own demise. At the time of the Armistice, the reported number of dead varies but seems to be between 8.5 and 10 million military lay dead. No military historian am I, but having gone on this trip and having heard how this war came to be, how it unfolded, seeing the size of the craters from the bombings, the unspeakable misery of the trenches, the poison gases, and, most importantly, those acres and acres of cemeteries with the unimaginable loss of life, I cannot forget.