Adam Hochschild: Veterans Day, 95 Years On: The Enduring Folly of the Battle of the Somme

By Adam Hochschild. Illustrations by Joe Sacco. Originally published at TomDispatch.com.

[The illustrations in this piece come from Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme with the kind permission of its publisher, W.W. Norton, and the slightly adapted text, which also appears in that book, comes originally from Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 and is used with the kind permission of its publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.]

In a country that uses every possible occasion to celebrate its “warriors,” many have forgotten that today’s holiday originally marked a peace agreement. Veterans Day in the United States originally was called Armistice Day and commemorated the ceasefire which, at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, ended the First World War.

Up to that point, it had been the most destructive war in history, with a total civilian and military death toll of roughly 20 million. Millions more had been wounded, many of them missing arms, legs, eyes, genitals; and because of an Allied naval blockade of the Central Powers, millions more were near starvation: the average German civilian lost 20% of his or her body weight during the war.

A stunned world had never experienced anything like this. In some countries for years afterward, on November 11th, traffic, assembly lines, even underground mining machinery came to a halt at 11 a.m. for two minutes of silence, a silence often broken, witnesses from the 1920s reported, by the sound of women sobbing.

Like most wars, the war of 1914-1918 was begun with the expectation of quick victory, created more problems than it solved, and was punctuated by moments of tragic folly. As the years have passed, one point that has come to symbolize the illusions, the destructiveness, the hubris, the needless deaths of the entire war — and of other wars since then — has been the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The preparations for that battle went on for months: generals and their staffs drew up plans in their châteaux headquarters; horses, tractors, and sweating soldiers maneuvered thousands of big 13-ton guns into position; reconnaissance planes swooped above the German lines; endless trains of horse-drawn supply wagons carried artillery shells and machine gun ammunition up to the front; hundreds of thousands of soldiers from across the British Empire, from the Orkney Islands to the Punjab, filled frontline trenches, reserve trenches, and support bases in the rear. All was in preparation for the grand attack that seemed certain to change the course of the war. And then finally on the first day of July 1916, preceded by the most massive bombardment British artillery had ever fired, the battle began.

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You can see the results of the battle’s first day in dozens of military cemeteries spread out across this corner of France, but perhaps the most striking is one of the smallest, on a hillside, screened by a grove of trees. Each gravestone has a name, rank, and serial number; 162 have crosses and one a Star of David. When known, a man’s age is engraved on the stone as well: 19, 22, 23, 26, 21, 20, 34. Ten of the graves simply say, “A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God.”

Almost all the dead are from Britain’s Devonshire Regiment, the date on their gravestones July 1, 1916. Most were casualties of a single German machine gun several hundred yards from this spot, and were buried here in a section of the frontline trench they had climbed out of that morning. Captain Duncan Martin, 30, a company commander and an artist in civilian life, had made a clay model of the battlefield across which the British planned to attack. He predicted the exact place at which he and his men would come under fire from the machine gun as they emerged onto an exposed hillside. He, too, is here, one of some 21,000 British soldiers killed or fatally wounded on the day of greatest bloodshed in the history of their country’s military, before or since.

Dreams of Swift Victory

In almost every war, it seems, the next planned offensive is seen as the big breakthrough, the smashing, decisive blow that will pave the way to swift victory. Midway through the First World War, troops from both sides had been bogged down for the better part of two years in lines of trenches that ran across northern France and a corner of Belgium. Barbed wire and the machine gun had made impossible the war of dramatic advances and glorious cavalry charges that the generals on both sides had dreamed of.

To end this frustrating stalemate, the British army planned an enormous assault for a point near where the River Somme meandered its slow and weed-filled way through French wheat and sugar-beet fields. A torrent of supplies began pouring into the area to equip the half million British Empire troops involved, of whom 120,000 would attack on the first day alone. This was to be the “Big Push,” a concentration of manpower and artillery so massive and in such a small space that the German defenses would burst open as if hit by floodwaters.

After the overwhelmed Germans had been bayoneted in their trenches, it would be a matter of what General Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief, called “fighting the Enemy in the open,” and so battalions were trained intensively in maneuvering across trenchless meadows. Finally, of course, streaming through the gap in the lines would come the cavalry, three divisions’ worth. After all, hadn’t glorious charges by men on horseback been a decisive element in warfare for millennia?

Troops unrolled 70,000 miles of telephone cable. Thousands more unloaded and piled ammunition in huge dumps; stripped to the waist and sweltering in the summer heat, they dug endlessly to construct special roads to speed supplies to the front. Fifty-five miles of new standard-gauge railway line were built. With as many British soldiers crammed into the launching area as the population of a good-sized city, new wells had to be drilled and dozens of miles of water pipe laid. No detail was forgotten.

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British troops, the plan went, would move forward across no-man’s-land in successive waves. Everything was precise: each wave would advance in a continuous line 100 yards in front of the next, at a steady pace of 100 yards a minute. How were they to be safe from German machine gun fire? Simple: the pre-attack artillery bombardment would destroy not just the Germans’ barbed wire but the bunkers that sheltered their machine guns. How could this not be when there was one artillery piece for every 17 yards of front line, all of which would rain a total of a million and a half shells down on the German trenches? And if that weren’t enough, once British troops climbed out of their trenches, a final “creeping barrage” of bursting shells would precede them, a moving curtain of fire riddling with shrapnel any surviving Germans who emerged from underground shelters to try to fight.

The plan for the first day’s attack on July 1, 1916, was 31 pages long and its map included the British names with which the German trenches had already been rechristened. Preparations this thorough were hard to conceal, and there were occasional unnerving signs that the German troops knew almost as much about them as the British. When one unit moved into position, it found a sign held up from the German trenches: WELCOME TO THE 29TH DIVISION.

Several weeks before the attack, 168 officers who were graduates of Eton met for an Old Etonian dinner at the Hotel Godbert in Amiens, a French city behind the lines. In Latin, they toasted their alma mater — “Floreat Etona!” — and raised their voices in the school song, “Carmen Etonense.” Enlisted men entertained themselves in other ways. A haunting piece of documentary film footage from these months, taken from a Red Cross barge moving down a canal behind the lines, shows hundreds of Allied soldiers stripped completely bare, wading, bathing, or sunning themselves on the canal bank, smiling and waving at the camera. Without helmets and uniforms, it is impossible to tell their nationality; their naked bodies mark them only as human beings.

Riding a black horse and with his usual escort of lancers, General Haig inspected his divisions as they rehearsed their attacks on practice fields where white tapes on the ground stood for the German trenches. On June 20th, the commander in chief wrote to his wife, “The situation is becoming more favourable to us.” On June 22nd he added, “I feel that every step in my plan has been taken with the Divine help.” On June 30th, as the great artillery barrage had been thundering for five days, Haig wrote in his diary, “The men are in splendid spirits…. The wire has never been so well cut, nor the Artillery preparation so thorough.” For good measure, the British released clouds of deadly chlorine gas toward the German lines.

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As it grew close to zero hour, 7:30 a.m. on July 1st, men detonated 10 enormous mines planted by British miners tunneling deep beneath the German trenches. Near the village of La Boisselle, the crater from one remains, a stark, gaping indentation in the surrounding farmland; even partly filled in by a century of erosion, it is still 55 feet deep and 220 feet across.

When the artillery barrage reached its crescendo, 224,221 shells in the last sixty-five minutes, the rumble could be heard as far away as Hampstead Heath in London. More shells were fired by the British this week than they had used in the entire first 12 months of the war; some gunners bled from the ears after seven days of nonstop firing. At a forest near Gommecourt, entire trees were uprooted and tossed in the air by the shelling and the forest itself set on fire.

Soldiers of the First Somerset Light Infantry sat on the parapet of their trench, cheering at the tremendous explosions. Officers issued a strong ration of rum to the men about to head into no-man’s-land. Captain W.P. Nevill of the Eighth East Surrey Battalion gave each of his four platoons a soccer ball and promised a prize to whichever one first managed to kick a ball into the German trench. One platoon painted its ball with the legend:

THE GREAT EUROPEAN CUP 
          THE FINAL 
EAST SURREYS V. BAVARIANS

Throughout the British Isles, millions of people knew a great attack was to begin. “The hospital received orders to clear out all convalescents and prepare for a great rush of wounded,” remembered the writer Vera Brittain, working as a nurse’s aide in London. “We knew that already a tremendous bombardment had begun, for we could feel the vibration of the guns… Hour after hour, as the convalescents departed, we added to the long rows of waiting beds, so sinister in their white, expectant emptiness.”

“God, God, Where’s the Rest of the Boys?”

Haig waited anxiously in his forward headquarters at the Château de Beauquesne, 10 miles behind the battlefield. Then, after a full week of continual fire, the British guns abruptly fell silent.

When whistles blew at 7:30 a.m., the successive waves of troops began their planned 100-yards-a-minute advance. Each man moved slowly under more than 60 pounds of supplies — 200 bullets, grenades, shovel, two days’ food and water, and more. But when those soldiers actually clambered up the trench ladders and over the parapet, they quickly discovered something appalling. The multiple belts of barbed wire in front of the German trenches and the well-fortified machine gun emplacements were still largely intact.

Officers looking through binocular-periscopes had already suspected as much. Plans for any attack, however, have tremendous momentum; rare is the commander willing to recognize that something is awry. To call off an offensive requires bravery, for the general who does so risks being thought a coward. Haig was not such a man. Whistles blew, men cheered, Captain Nevill’s company of East Surreys kicked off its four soccer balls. The soldiers hoped to stay alive — and sometimes for something more: troops of the First Newfoundland Regiment knew that a prominent young society woman back home had promised to marry the first man in the regiment to win the Empire’s highest medal, the Victoria Cross.

The week-long bombardment, it turned out, had been impressive mainly for its noise. More than one out of four British shells were duds that buried themselves in the earth, exploding, if at all, only when struck by some unlucky French farmer’s plow years or decades later. Two-thirds of the shells fired were shrapnel, virtually useless in destroying machine gun emplacements made of steel and reinforced concrete or stone. Nor could shrapnel shells, which scattered light steel balls, destroy the dense belts of German barbed wire, many yards thick, unless they burst at just the right height. But their fuses were wildly unreliable, and usually they exploded only after they had already plummeted into the earth, destroying little and embedding so much metal in the ground that soldiers trying to navigate through darkness or smoke sometimes found their compasses had ceased to work.

The remaining British shells were high-explosive ones, which could indeed destroy a German machine gun bunker, but only if they hit it with pinpoint accuracy. When guns were firing from several miles away, this was almost impossible. German machine gun teams had waited out the bombardment in dugouts as deep as 40 feet below the surface and supplied with electricity, water, and ventilation. In one of the few places where British troops did reach the German front line on July 1, they found the electric light in a dugout still on.

Unaccountably, an underground mine had exploded beneath the German lines 10 minutes before zero hour, a clear signal that the attack was about to begin. Then, like a final warning, the remaining mines went off at 7:28 a.m., followed by a two-minute wait to allow the debris — blown thousands of feet into the air — to fall back to earth before British troops climbed out of their trenches to advance. Those two minutes gave German machine gunners time to run up the ladders and stairways from their dugouts and man their fortified posts, of which there were roughly a thousand in the sector of the line under attack. During the two minutes, the British could hear bugles summoning German riflemen and machine gunners to their positions.

“They came on at a steady easy pace as if expecting to find nothing alive in our front trenches,” recalled a German soldier of the British advance. “…When the leading British line was within 100 yards, the rattle of [German] machine guns and rifle fire broke out from along the whole line… Red rockets sped up into the blue sky as a signal to the artillery, and immediately afterwards a mass of shells from the German batteries in [the] rear tore through the air and burst among the advancing lines.”

The Germans, like the British, had plenty of artillery pieces; these were under camouflage netting and had simply not been used during the preceding weeks, so as not to reveal their positions to British aircraft. Now they fired their deadly shrapnel, whose effects the Germans could see: “All along the line men could be seen throwing their arms into the air and collapsing never to move again. Badly wounded rolled about in their agony… with… cries for help and the last screams of death.”

Plans for the orderly march forward in line abreast were quickly abandoned as men separated into small groups and sought the shelter of hillocks and shell holes. But there was no question of the hard-hit British troops turning back, for each battalion had soldiers designated as “battle police,” herding any stragglers forward. “When we got to the German wire I was absolutely amazed to see it intact, after what we had been told,” remembered one British private. “The colonel and I took cover behind a small bank but after a bit the colonel raised himself on his hands and knees to see better. Immediately he was hit on the forehead by a single bullet.”

Because the artillery bombardment had destroyed so little of the barbed wire, British soldiers had to bunch up to get through the few gaps they could find — making themselves an even more conspicuous target. Many soldiers died when their clothing, especially the loose kilts of the Scotsmen, caught on the wire. “Only three out of our company got past there,” recalled a private of the Fourth Tyneside Scottish Battalion. “There was my lieutenant, a sergeant and myself…. The officer said, ‘God, God, where’s the rest of the boys?’”

The vaunted “creeping barrage” crept forward according to the timetable — and then continued to creep off uselessly into the far distance long after British troops who were supposed to be following behind its protective cover had been pinned down by the tangles of uncut German wire. The cavalry waited behind the British lines, but in vain. Some of those who had survived in no-man’s-land tried, after dark, to crawl back to their own trenches, but even then the continual traversing of German machine gun fire sent up showers of sparks as bullets hit the British barbed wire.

Of the 120,000 British troops who went into battle on July 1, 1916, more than 57,000 were dead or wounded before the day was over — nearly two casualties for every yard of the front; 19,000 were killed, most of them within the first disastrous hour, and some 2,000 more would die in aid stations or hospitals later. There were an estimated 8,000 German casualties. Because they led their troops out of the trenches, the toll was heaviest among the officers who took part in the attack, three-quarters of whom were killed or wounded. These included many who had attended the Old Etonian dinner a few weeks before: more than 30 Eton men lost their lives on July 1st. Captain Nevill of the East Surreys, who had distributed the soccer balls, was fatally shot through the head in the first few minutes.

The First Newfoundland Regiment, awaiting its Victoria Cross winner and the young woman who had promised herself as his reward, was virtually wiped out. There were 752 men who climbed out of their trenches to advance toward the skeletal ruins of an apple orchard covered by German machine gun fire; by the day’s end 684 were dead, wounded, or missing, including every single officer. The German troops the Newfoundlanders attacked did not suffer a single casualty.

Attacking soldiers had been ordered not to tend injured comrades, but to leave them for stretcher bearers who would follow. The dead and wounded, however, included hundreds of stretcher bearers themselves, and there were nowhere near enough men to carry the critically injured to first aid posts in time. Stretchers ran out; some wounded were carried off two to a stretcher or on sheets of corrugated iron whose edges ravaged the bearers’ fingers. Many wounded who lived through the first day never made it off the battlefield. For weeks afterward their fellow soldiers came upon them in shell holes, where they had crawled for shelter, taken out their pocket Bibles, and wrapped themselves in their waterproof groundsheets to die, in pain and alone.

In other ways as well, the terrible day took its toll after the fact. One battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel E.T.F. Sandys, having seen more than 500 of his men killed or wounded during that day, wrote to a fellow officer two months later, “I have never had a moment’s peace since July 1st.” Then, in a London hotel room, he shot himself.

A Quiet Trench

Engraved on a stone plaque in the small cemetery holding the Devonshire Regiment’s casualties from this day are the words survivors carved on a wooden sign when they first buried their dead:

The Devonshires held this trench
The Devonshires hold it still

In the cemetery’s visitors’ book, on a few pages the ink of the names and remarks has been smeared by raindrops — or was it tears? “Paid our respects to 3 of our townsfolk.” “Sleep on, boys.” “Lest we forget.” “Thanks, lads.” “Gt. Uncle thanks, rest in peace.”

Only one visitor strikes a different note: “Never again.”

Joe Sacco, one of America’s foremost political cartoonists, is author of the new book The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme, from which the illustrations in this piece are taken. His books include Palestine, winner of the American Book Award, Footnotes in Gaza, winner of the Ridenhour Book Prize, and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, co-authored with Chris Hedges. His Safe Area Goražde was named best comic book of the year by Time magazine. His drawings are reproduced by permission of W. W. Norton & Co. 

Adam Hochschild is the author of To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918, from which this text, used in Sacco’s book, is drawn.  It won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. His previous books include Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son, and Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, a finalist for the National Book Award. This text is reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Illustrations reprinted from The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme by Joe Sacco. Copyright © 2013 by Joe Sacco. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Copyright 2013 Joe Sacco and Adam Hochschild

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

39 comments

  1. Mark P.

    Jean De Bloch
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Gotlib_Bloch

    Bloch was a Polish banker and railway financier… (who) published his six-volume master work, Budushchaya Voina, popularized in English translation as IS WAR NOW IMPOSSIBLE?, in Paris in 1898.

    His mainly detailed analysis of modern warfare, its tactical, strategic and political implications, was widely read in Europe. Bloch argued that:

    New arms technology (e.g. smokeless gunpowder, improved rifle design, Maxims) had rendered maneuvers over open ground, such as bayonet and cavalry charges, obsolete. Bloch concluded that a war between the Great powers would be a war of entrenchment and that rapid attacks and decisive victories were likewise a thing of the past. He calculated that entrenched men would enjoy a fourfold advantage over infantry advancing across open ground.

    Industrial societies would have to settle the resultant stalemate by committing armies numbering in the millions, as opposed to the tens of thousands of preceding wars. An enormous battlefront would develop. A war of this type could not be resolved quickly.

    The war would become a duel of industrial might, a matter of total economic attrition. Severe economic and social dislocations would result in the imminent risk of famine, disease, the “break-up of the whole social organization” and revolutions from below.
    more via the link

  2. Mark P.

    THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE MACHINE GUN (1986)
    by John Ellis

    From a review …

    ‘Ellis’s …thesis contends that the invention of the machine gun and the failure of the military to recognize it significance in the decades leading up to WWI, considering it useful only against tribesmen and other “primitives”, led directly to the horrific slaughter of WWI and the static warefare of the trenches. He looks in depth at the military subculture of Victorian England and how it was incapable of recognizing the significance of the machine gun-and those who attempted to place the weapon into the British Army’s scheme of things were sanctioned and gagged. When we finally get to the chapter on WWI it is akin to reading one of Shakespear’s tragedies. The inevitability of the butchery is made all that more terrible by the knowledge that the deliberite myopia of the British and French higher command ensured that their troops used outmoded tactics against emplaced German forces and their Maxim guns. The author gives one case where two German machine guns annihilated a six-hundred man British infantry battalion in the space of a couple of hours with no casulties sustained by the Germans….’

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Social-History-Machine-Gun/dp/0801833582

  3. Mark P.

    In Winston Churchill’s first book THE RIVER WAR, Chapter XV is his account of the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 at which an army commanded by General Herbert Kitchener defeated the vastly larger army of Abdullah al-Taashi, the successor to the self-proclaimed Mahdi.

    Losses on the Anglo-Egyptian side were 47 dead, 382 wounded.

    Losses on the Mahdi’s side were (approx) 10,000 dead,13,000 wounded, 5,000 captured

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4943/4943-h/4943-h.htm#link2HCH0015

    It is worth reading this chapter in its entirety. Churchill was a great writer, though not a man whose sensibilities are like ours. Here is an excerpt:

    ‘The infantry fired steadily and stolidly, without hurry or excitement, for the enemy were far away and the officers careful. Besides, the soldiers were interested in the work and took great pains. But presently the mere physical act became tedious. The tiny figures seen over the slide of the backsight seemed a little larger, but also fewer at each successive volley. The rifles grew hot—so hot that they had to be changed for those of the reserve companies. The Maxim guns exhausted all the water in their jackets, and several had to be refreshed from the water-bottles of the Cameron Highlanders before they could go on with their deadly work. The empty cartridge-cases, tinkling to the ground, formed a small but growing heap beside each man. And all the time out on the plain on the other side bullets were shearing through flesh, smashing and splintering bone; blood spouted from terrible wounds; valiant men were struggling on through a hell of whistling metal, exploding shells, and spurting dust—suffering, despairing, dying. Such was the first phase of the battle of Omdurman….’

    And so on.

  4. Paul P

    DULCE ET DECORUM EST(1)

    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares(2) we turned our backs
    And towards our distant rest(3) began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots(4)
    Of tired, outstripped(5) Five-Nines(6) that dropped behind.
    Gas!(7) Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets(8) just in time;
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
    And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime(9) . . .
    Dim, through the misty panes(10) and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering,(11) choking, drowning.
    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud(12)
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest(13)
    To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
    Pro patria mori.(15)

    Wilfred Owen
    8 October 1917 – March, 1918

    1. DakotabornKansan

      Wilfred Owen was one of the greatest voices of the First World War. His self-appointed task was to speak for the men in his care, to show the ‘Pity of War.’

      “This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” ― Wilfred Owen, The Poems of Wilfred Owen

      His scathing portrait of physical and social disablement in early 20th-century Britain:

      “He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,

      And shivered in his ghastly suits of grey,

      Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park

      Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,

      Voices of play and pleasure after day,

      Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him….

      Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.

      Only a solemn man who brought him fruits

      Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.

      Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,

      And do what things the rules consider wise,

      And take whatever pity they may dole.

      To-night he noticed how the women’s eyes

      Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.

      How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come

      And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?”

      – Wilfred Owen, “Disabled”

      Fast forward a century later…

      Ann Jones’ scathing portrait of physical and social disablement in early 21th-century United States:

      “It’s that silence I remember from the time I spent in trauma hospitals among the wounded and the dying and the dead. It was almost as if they had fled their own bodies, abandoning that bloodied flesh upon the gurneys to surgeons ready to have a go at salvation. Later, sometimes much later, they might return to inhabit whatever the doctors had managed to salvage. They might take up those bodies or what was left of them and make them walk again, or run, or even ski. They might dress themselves, get a job, or conceive a child. But what I remember is the first days when they were swept up and dropped into the hospital so deathly still.” – Ann Jones, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars: The Untold Story

      “My father used to say that wars are made by men who have never been to war, men who don’t know that war, once started, never ends.” – Ann Jones’ dedication to Lieutenant Oscar Trygve Slagsvol, her father, a decorated veteran of the Western Front in World War I

      “Follow the money,” a furious Army officer, near the end of his career, instructed me. I had spent my time with poor kids in search of an honorable future who do the grunt work of America’s military. They are part of the nation’s lowliest 1%. But as that angry career officer told me, “They only follow orders.” It’s the other 1% at the top who are served by war, the great American engine that powers the transfer of wealth from the public treasury upward and into their pockets. Following that money trail reveals the real point of the chosen conflicts. As that disillusioned officer put it to me, the wars have made those profiteers “monu-fuckin’-mentally rich.” It’s the soldiers and their families who lost out.” – Ann Jones, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars: The Untold Story

  5. Lambert Strether Post author

    We fought for Mulberry Springs
    Die now for Garlic River
    Wash our swords in Parthian Seas
    Feed our mounts on T’ien Shan snows

    Thousands of miles to and fro
    The Three Armies tired and old
    These Huns kill instead of plowing
    Sow white bones in desert sand

    Ch’in built the Great Wall
    Han keeps the bright beacons
    These fires never die
    These wars never end

    Hand to hand we fight and fail
    Horses screaming to the skies
    Kites and crows pick at our flesh
    Perch on dead trees with our dead

    We paint the grasses red
    Because our General had a plan
    The sword I say’s an evil thing
    A wise man keeps it from his hand

    Li Bai

  6. vlade

    Yet, the scarring of WW1 allowed (and set up) even worse attrocity in WW2. And there, most of the suffering was by civilians (even though military losses alone were almost triple of ww1) – when in ww1 it was mostly indirect.

    The horriblness of Somme (and others) is more due to the sheer stupidity of it (which implies the avoidability of the suffering) than anything else. But that is still not often enough acknowledged, even today (although to be fair, it’s much more readily acknowledged than the idiocy of Bomber Harris). We can see it by still putting more blame on the other side than their own generals (on both sides, for idiocy was one human trait that they shared).

    That all said, I still find it weird how much emphasis in the west (ex Germany, who went through the meatgrinder in both wars, worse one in the second) there’s on WW1, and lack of understanding what impact WW2 had on peoples east of (and including) Germany – that WW2 experience was way worse than ww1. Poland lost 16% of its population. Belarus lost [b]25%[/b] – yes, that’s every fourth man, woman or child in Belarus died. In ww1, France lost about 4% of its population, and they called that “lost generation” (in the original meaning, it was those who died in ww1). What do you call then when five as many people die?

    Terrible things happened to Jews – and in relative terms they suffred the most (67% of the pre-war C&E europe population lost). But in absolute terms, their suffering is still less than even just Russians alone experienced.

    Oh, and incidentally, those casualties had (in the USSR, at least) nothing to do with the human wave myth (which I see as one of the way that West can “deal” with the appaling casualties), but that’d take his way too far OT.

    1. ambrit

      Dear vlade;
      Sorry, but “Bomber” Harris was quite aware of the relative value of aerial bombing by ’42. He was even more aware of the true strategic value however. Simply put, to degrade the enemies potential by killing off as many civilian workers as possible by area wide indiscriminate bombing of city residential areas. Also, the man wanted the German people to suffer what the London area English had during the Blitz. Sometimes, revenge is motivation enough.

      1. H. Alexander Ivey

        Revenge may be enough for Bomber Harris, but it is a stupid way to wage a war. All the bombers and their crew came from other areas of the military machine – like fighter and recognisance aircraft – that could have ended the war sooner, with less casualties on both sides.

        The only “good” thing a carpet bombing campaign could do is to convince future generations of the enemy not to wage a war. However, this good thing is rarely learned and taught.

        1. ambrit

          Mr. Ivey;
          I beg your forgiveness if I came across as a warmonger. My views are coloured by my parents tales of their own experiences as children of the London Blitz. (It would be instructive to search out reminiscences of the Rotterdam Blitz or the Warsaw Blitz for points of similarity and difference.)
          A more appropriate idea, since this is Armistice Day, would be the study of the ways of Waging Peace. Most agree that WWII is really WWI.2.0, due to the vengefulness of the terms imposed by the Allied Powers upon the losing Triple Alliance. Bomber Harris can quite easily be seen as the heir to the Mandarins of the Triple Entente.
          Ultimately, it all comes down to the study of Homo Sap.

          1. DakotabornKansan

            George McGovern as B-24 pilot of the Dakota Queen during WW2, when one of the bombs in his plane did not drop…

            Excerpted from Stephen Ambrose’s The Wild Blue:

            “I don’t regret bombing strategic targets in Austria. I do regret the damage that was done to innocent people. And there was one bomb I’ve regretted all these years.”

            McGovern told about the bomb that had stuck in the bomb bay door and had to be jettisoned, on March 14, 1945.

            “All of a sudden the plane jumped and I knew the bomb had been cut loose.”

            They were approaching the Austrian-Italian border. McGovern watched the bomb descend, “a luxury you didn’t have at 25,000 feet. It went down and hit right on a farm in that beautiful, green part of Austria. It was almost like a mushroom, a big, gigantic mushroom. It just withered the house, the barn, the chicken house, the water tank. Everything was just leveled. It couldn’t have come in more perfectly. If we had been trying to hit it we couldn’t have hit it as square. You could see stuff flying through the air and a cloud of black smoke.”

            McGovern glanced at his watch. It was high noon. He came from South Dakota. He knew what time farmers eat.

            “To my sorrow it hit a peaceful little Austrian farmyard at high noon and maybe led to the death of some people in that family. I got a sickening feeling. Here was this peaceful area. They thought they were safely out of the war zone. Nothing there, no city, no rail yard, nothing. Just a peaceful farmyard. Had nothing to do with the war, just a family eating a noon meal. It made me sick to my stomach.

            I regret that all the more because it was the day I learned my wife had given birth to our first child and the thought went through my mind then and on many, many days since then, that we brought a young baby into the world and probably killed someone else’s baby or children.”

          2. Mark P.

            ‘Most agree that WWII is really WWI.2.0, due to the vengefulness of the terms imposed by the Allied Powers upon the losing Triple Alliance.’

            True.

            1. Synopticist

              I have to dissent from that. Some of the financial sanctions were arguably over-onerous, but the Prussians had pulled a similar stunt over the French in 1870.

              If you want to see a really brutal, cruel treaty, try the Brest-Litovsk treaty imposed by the Germans on the defeated revolutionary Russia. Most of Belarus and the Ukraine became a German agricultural colony.

              Ultimately, Germany was too big and populous for Europe. In the ruthless and deeply ethnocentrist europe of the first half of the twentieth century, she would either end up ruling the whole continent, or die trying.

          3. A. Gouveia

            I think that if you, a child of the London Blitz, agree with the bombing of cities, then that is proof that it does not work as a strategy to prevent further agression. The Germans start the war as revenge for the defeat in the first one, they bomb British civilians, then the British bomb the German civilians… meh. Because, when given the chance, everyone will seek revenge on the other side, it is a costly futility.
            Of course you think from the Allied perspective, but from the German one, the resources it wasted, and the losses the Luftwaff suffered,with the terror bombing campaign, contributed to their overall defeat, don’t you think?

      2. vlade

        dear ambrit;

        I do not disagree with vengance as the motive (although you can argue whether Dresden, Hamburg etc. in exchange for Coventry and Docklands isn’t overdoing it a bit) – but strategically speaking, it was still idiocy as far as the stated goal (win the war) was concerned. In fact, the experience of Blitz should have shown the British that it’s very very hard to subdue the morale via mass bombing. And given the lack of precision (admitted by all), mass civilian casualties/suffering was the only “strategic” value of Bomber’s campaign. Yet it failed (and similar campaign failed in Japan, until the ultimate weapon was used).

        A good example of the idiocy is extremely strong resistance of BH to commit bombing forces on targets that were helpful in D-Day (he hated D-Day as taking resouces from him and fought it very hard).

        As I say, I can understand the revenge factor (and in fact, there was an attempt to instill hate training in UK forces during WW2, until some powerful figures found out), but that does not stop it being idiocy.

        I could even understand bombing campaign in 41/42 as it was about the only way how British could feel to be hitting back (ex African theatre), and so important for home morale (and thus do have strategic impact). But in 44/45 it was all but waste in any way you can look at it.

    2. DakotabornKansan

      In “Air War and Literature,” W.G. Sebald examined how and to what extent the atrocities suffered by German civilians during the Allies massive air campaign against Nazi Germany between 1942 and 1945 have been remembered.

      “As far as I know, the question of whether and how it could be strategically or morally justified was never the subject of open debate in Germany after 1945, no doubt mainly because a nation which had murdered and worked to death millions of people in its camps could hardly call on the victorious powers to explain the military and political logic that dictated the destruction of the German cities.” – W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction

      Kurt Vonnegut turned his experience of surviving the allied bombing of Dresden into his novel Slaughterhouse Five:

      “The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage

      1. ambrit

        Thanks DK! I had totally forgotten “The Childrens Crusade.”
        (P.S.- Poor Vonnegut is shamefully abused in Larry Nivens’ book “Inferno.”)

        1. optimader

          Great man, that Vonnegut.. Such a close touch w/ reality that the medical establishment though him mentally ill.

        1. Synopticist

          Well, Stalin had a good 20 years to do his dirty work. Hitler was only properly kicking in for 3 or 4.

      1. Benjamin

        Doesn’t matter. That the other side did worse things does not justify or whitewash the allies actions. You don’t deliberately target civilians. Ever. I know some might scoff at the very concept of ‘rules of war’ but there’s actually a logical basis for them aside from morality.

        Wars are fought to achieve a strategic end. The cheapest and quickest way to achieve that end is to destroy the enemies ability to wage war. You bomb factories and rail-yards, you kill soldiers and armies when the opportunity presents itself, though the former ultimately has much more impact than the latter. Wasting resources on bombing civilians is an exercise in futility, since it doesn’t directly harm the war production of the enemy, is a terribly inefficient way of depleting their manpower reserves, and really only serves to harder their resolve and create propaganda opportunities for them (‘Look how the evil cowards bomb our Fatherland! Rise up, defend your wifes and children!’).

        Dresden gets too much attention however, most people don’t seem to realize that the Americans reduced most major cities in Japan to rubble long before we dropped the nukes. There’s even an argument to be made that the nukes effect on the Japanese psyche was significantly reduced because of our conventinal bombings. Why is the ability to instantly destroy a city particularly shocking when the enemy has already demonstrated they can easily do it with mass conventional bombings? Certainly it was only after the Soviet invasion of Manchuria that the Japanese surrendered. They may have done so even if we hadn’t dropped the nukes.

        And as a final note, regarding drone strikes and collateral damage. Collateral damage is when you’re bombing a German factory and some bombs fall on a school or house down the street. Nobody wants it to happen, and everything possible is done to prevent it, but given the crudeness of the technology involved, it’s going to happen. You just have to make sure that the target you’re aiming for is worth it and ultimtely saves more innocent lives than are unintentionally lost in the process.

        Deliberately targeting groups of people because they ‘might’ contain a terrorist or two isn’t colleteral damage. It’s intentional murder. Especially maddening because the laser precision of modern weapons, especially drones, is much vaunted as a chief selling point. And don’t get me started on double-taps, where we bomb something, wait a while, and then bomb the people who come to rescue any survivors.

        1. Optimader

          “You don’t deliberately target civilians. Ever. .”
          Laudable perspective, too bad i cant think of a single war…ever…where civilians were not targeted.

    3. gepay

      “The British fight like lions. “But they are led by donkeys.”
      conversation attributed to German head staff WW1.
      When asked about the appalling deaths in the failed strategy.
      Sir Douglas Haig, “I consider WW1 to be one long battle and we won.”
      Sir Douglas Haig failed to complete his stay at Oxford.(but he did well at polo.} Failed the math examination for Camberly Staff College but got admitted by nomination (powerful and influential people pulled strings).
      On his return to England from the Boer War he argued that cavalry would be of greater rather than less importance in coming conflicts whereas infantry and artillery would “only likely to be really effective against raw troops”.
      After the Russians left the War, using new tactics, the Germans were winning the War. Only the entry of America (President Wilson elected with one of his PR – he kept us out of war – aren’t you glad that our present President doesn’t break his promises) enabled the allies to hold on long enough for the Embargo to make Germany capitulate.

  7. Optimader

    ” – that could have ended the war sooner, with less casualties on both sides.”

    Of course because none of us know, it could have extended, with more casualties or had no influence of the war’s duration and casualties. To suggest you know is presumptious IMO. War is war , in the end it’s whimsical to delude oneself that as it devolves there is some level of moral conduct in play.

    1. Synoia

      The British strategy was simple. We have more men than the Germans, if we each kill the other equally, then we, The British will win the war.

      In his autobiography Bertrann Russel discusses his, and other, opposition to the treaties (Double Alliance and Triple Alliance), which he believe set Britain on the path to war.

      And finally Douglas Haig, I asked my fater in the early ’60s about Douglas Haig. His reply was thought, and the the answer “Yes, he killed as many people as the others”.

      He was born in 1914. He grew up in the shadow of The Great War. My Great Uncle Fred never returned to Britain after that war, he went to Central America (I have cousins in Costa Rica).

  8. Ishmael

    WW1 was largely a result of France seeking revenge for its losses in the Franco Prussian war and Britian following its strategy for several hundred years of always joining number 2 to fight number 1 in Europe. Britian was very alarmed by the growing industrialization and success of Germany and France wanted back the Alsace-Lorraine which it lost in the France Prussian war.

    Britian and France entered into a secret alliance in 1903. France then entered into another alliance with Russia basically encircling Germany. Germany caught between two agressive world powers developed the Schliffen Plan to first take out France through and then Russia. The later modifications to the Schliffen Plan removed to many troops from the right encircling wing and the plan failed leading to the trench warfare of WW 1. The biggest flaw of the Schliffen Plan was that you could not mobilize and then attack, these two actions happened almost simultaneously. Germany was the last of the major participants in WW 1 to mobilize (of course I am excluding the US). But due to the flaw of the Schliffen Plan once the German mobilization started the invasion of Belgian happened almost instantaneously. The Kaiser asked the German generals to mobilize and wait and when told by Moltke the junior that they could not do that. To which the Kaiser responded, “Your father (Moltke the Elder) would have not given me that answer.”

    Even though the machine gun delivered extensive destruction, the true killer of WW 1 was artillery! I do not remember if it was the Somme or another significant battle but at one point the German machine gunners became so sickened of the massacre they just stopped firing and allowed British troops to pull back to their trenches and collect their wounded.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      IIRC (I can dig out the cite from the book) the Schlieffen plan was “a logistical nonsense” because although the German troops were delivered to the border by railway, thereafter they had to march on the French (and Belgian) highways, which simply didn’t have the capacity to carry troops to produce the encircling right wing that Schlieffen plan contemplated. Haig was not the only delusional general; there were many.

      1. Synopticist

        I think that’s wrong actually, although you’d be getting into historical counter-factuals. The German generals diverted from the plan, allocating troops to the left flank unnecessarily to defend a French attack and then to counter-attacking themselves. Also they shifted armies over to the east when the Russians mobilised earlier than the plan foresaw, but those soldiers actually took no part in the fighting during the first crucial weeks.

  9. jfleni

    If anyone thinks that any lessons were learned from this, one of recent history’s greatest disasters, take a squint at the machinations of “BiBi the effing Mad”, and his recent nukes on submarines adventures, something that all Euopean and Med, powers are well aware of, especially the German builders who made the subs.

    When BiBi raises his arms to heaven during one his speeches, he doesn’t see Abraham, Moses or Maimonedes (fat chance!), or even many of the wise and profound rabiis of Jewish history, but images of the Kaiser and the Czar, cousins who were really fond partisans of fanatical Zionism. The devils that appear are the rat-faced Goebbels, or the fat pervert Goering, both of whom appear to be coming back to finish the job (or at least that’s the stories that appear in places like the New Yuck Times), or some Iranian politician that BiBi now hates with an unreasoning passion.

    When you think about incompetent British and French generals, the Kaiser and the Czar and all the rest, don’t forget the current crop of “Mad as a Hatter” politicians. and don’t forget to fear them equally.

    1. Paul P

      Adam Hochschild did a slide show when he talked about his book “To End All Wars.” You can find the talk on the Book Channel.

      One slide had a picture of German soldiers boarding a train on which was written “On to Paris.” Another slide showed French soldiers boarding a train on which was written “On to Berlin.”

      Walking past the Veteran’s Day parade in Manhattan today, I got the feeling pride in war was running strong. There was a small contingent of Vets Against War. Good for them.

      1. Benjamin

        > I got the feeling pride in war was running strong.

        Completely intentional. Why do you think it’s called Veteran’s Day instead of its original name? It was meant to celebrate the end of war, now it’s used to praise the soldiers, usually with a lot of talk about honor, bravery, freedom isn’t free etc.

        It’s a very fundamental reality that war is almost never fought for reasons of morality or justice. Wars are big, expensive, complicated things. They cost a lot in blood treasure, and political capital. Nations always have some geo-political, strategic goal in mind, and a maximum in those three things that they’re willing to spend to achieve it before it stops being worth the expense.

        It’s amazing how many average people simply don’t grasp those basics. I can’t think of a single war that was fought because it was ‘the right thing to do’. WW2 gets brought up often, but the reality is however much Allied leaders may have been genuinely horrified by the Nazi’s, the war wasn’t fought based on that revulsion. Especially since the true extent of their transgressions wasn’t know until after the war was over.

  10. Lambert Strether Post author

    “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”

    When I was a young man I carried me pack
    And I lived the free life of the rover
    From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback
    I waltzed my Matilda all over
    Then in 1915 my country said: Son,
    It’s time to stop rambling, there’s work to be done
    So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
    And they sent me away to the war

    And the band played Waltzing Matilda
    When the ship pulled away from the quay
    And amid all the tears, flag waving and cheers
    We sailed off for Gallipoli

    It well I remember that terrible day
    When our blood stained the sand and the water
    And how in that hell they call Suvla Bay
    We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
    Johnny Turk, he was ready, he primed himself well
    He rained us with bullets, and he showered us with shell
    And in five minutes flat, we were all blown to hell
    He nearly blew us back home to Australia

    And the band played Waltzing Matilda
    When we stopped to bury our slain
    Well we buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
    Then it started all over again

    Oh those that were living just tried to survive
    In that mad world of blood, death and fire
    And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
    While around me the corpses piled higher
    Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head
    And when I awoke in me hospital bed
    And saw what it had done, I wished I was dead
    I never knew there was worse things than dying

    Oh no more I’ll go Waltzing Matilda
    All around the green bush far and near
    For to hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs
    No more waltzing Matilda for me

    They collected the wounded, the crippled, the maimed
    And they shipped us back home to Australia
    The armless, the legless, the blind and the insane
    Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
    And when the ship pulled into Circular Quay
    I looked at the place where me legs used to be
    And thank Christ there was no one there waiting for me
    To grieve and to mourn and to pity

    And the Band played Waltzing Matilda
    When they carried us down the gangway
    Oh nobody cheered, they just stood there and stared
    Then they turned all their faces away

    Now every April I sit on my porch
    And I watch the parade pass before me
    I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
    Renewing their dreams of past glories
    I see the old men all tired, stiff and worn
    Those weary old heroes of a forgotten war
    And the young people ask “What are they marching for?”
    And I ask myself the same question

    And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
    And the old men still answer the call
    But year after year, their numbers get fewer
    Someday, no one will march there at all

    Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
    Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?
    And their ghosts may be heard as they march by the billabong
    So who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?

    — Eric Bogle

    1. Optimader

      http://warprayer.org/

      The War Prayer

      by Mark Twain

      It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fulttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory with stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

      It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

      Sunday morning came — next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams — visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender!

      Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation:

      God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest,
      Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!

      Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory —

      An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord and God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

      The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside — which the startled minister did — and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

      “I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think. “God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, and the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon your neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain on your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse on some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

      “You have heard your servant’s prayer — the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it — that part which the pastor — and also you in your hearts — fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard the words ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory — must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

      “Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it —

      For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimmage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

      We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

      (After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

      It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

  11. The Heretic

    We should have another rememberance day. I call it remember th-bastards who-lied-to-us day. That is is the day we remember all the influential people in politics, business, media, culture and religion, those unsung assholes who preached that war was glorious and victory would come swiftly for the nation. Special attention should be paid to the hypocrites among them, who preached war and national virtue and sacrifice, but who then exploited the vulnerability of their fellow citizens for personnal profit, or who hid their sons from war. We need a day to remember that war is not just horror, but a man made horror that could have been prevented if people did not listen to lies.

    1. ambrit

      Dear Evangelos;
      I just happened upon your contribution.
      In the mid-1960s I lived, a young boy with my family, several blocks away from “The Crater” in Petersburg, Virginia, USA.
      A similar gambit against opposing trenches in the 1860s, it was even more daunting from the ground level. It had a small museum beside it. I still remember one wall of that museum covered in a gray carpet of rifle bullets that had collided head on in flight during that days furious fighting. Even as a young boy I was amazed at the absurdity of it all.
      Thank you for a humbling image.

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