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Mark Nicholas on WWI

November 9, 2018

During assembly on Friday, November 9, Mark Nicholas (History) discussed the Great War —  the times leading up to it, the devastation and havoc it wreaked, and the impact it continued (continues) to have. Here are his prepared remarks, which were accompanied by a string of haunting images:

Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, as World War I was called until, sadly, we had to start numbering them. Let’s look at life before the war, in it, and after it. Memory is short, and to forget is to risk repetition of what should be left behind.

“War, children, is just a shot away,” sang that English sage and front man for the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, in 1969. In at least one instance, he was right: on June 28, 1914, in an obscure Bosnian town in southeastern Europe called Sarajevo, a tubercular teenage terrorist from Bosnia committed the most successful terrorist act in history when he approached the open touring car of Franz Ferdinand, the future ruler of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and murdered him and his pregnant wife, Sophia, by shooting them at point-blank range. Within two months, through a system of entangling alliances, almost all of Europe was at war, to be followed soon by their colonies as proxy fighters. Before it staggered to an exhausted halt four years later, WWI had destroyed 18 million lives and four empires, left 23 million people wounded and hundreds of thousands homeless, German submarines had sunk over 5000 ships, and new orphanages had to be built in every European combatant country for the 10 million orphans the war created.

This war followed a period of great invention and technological growth. The modern skyline emerged as Otis’ elevator began its first run at Cooper Union in 1853; by 1884, the first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, was built in Chicago. People in these buildings could talk to others miles away on Bell’s telephone or get instant stock quotations from London through the trans-Atlantic cable system. They went home to electrified houses on well-lit streets connected to modern sewage systems, where they might listen to music on Edison’s gramophone. By 1914, Karl Benz’s car had been on the road for 28 years, the Wright brothers had taken flight at Kitty Hawk 11 years before, and, in an era when many people were still farmers, tractors had been plowing fields for 22 years, transforming the amount of food produced and consumed, leading to healthier populations.

People also believed that humans were becoming more enlightened and humane, and that as more and more children got the benefits of public education, this trend toward toleration would continue. As Orwell wrote in 1984, “In the early twentieth century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly and efficient — a glittering antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete — was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person. Science and technology were developing at a prodigious speed, and it seemed natural to assume that they would go on developing.” Even the war’s arrival failed to initially dampen people’s optimism, as most believed the war would be short: “The boys will be home by Christmas,” was the refrain heard all over Europe, which might explain why so many soldiers seemed cheerful as they headed to the fronts. They were right, but it was Christmas of 1918, not 1914.

What happened? The industrial age that had produced the marvels making life easier had also produced new ways of taking life more easily. Hiram Maxim’s machine gun, invented in 1884, shot 600 rounds a minute and could be easily moved; that means it could kill everyone in this room in the next sixty seconds. The Europeans knew its lethality, as at Omdurman in 1898 on the Nile, using them the British killed 11,000 Sudanese fighters armed with spears and knives while losing somewhere between 28 to 40 of their own men. In Tanzania in the 1890s, a German officer-surgeon and his assistant dragged two machine guns and plenty of ammunition into a hut with a clear field of fire and from there killed a thousand Hehe tribesmen. As historian Robert O’Connell wrote, “If ever there was a device capable of giving vent to man’s predatory instincts, it was the machine gun.” I guess the Europeans never considered that they might turn this weapon against each other.

Artillery fired new high explosive shells at a faster rate than ever before, and these big guns could also fire shells farther than ever before: Big Bertha, named after the weapons’ manufacturer Gustav Krupp’s wife, could fire a shell weighing 1785 pounds 6 miles. It required a gun crew of 200 men, and when it was used in the siege of the Belgian town of Liege, soldiers inside the town were driven mad by the shelling. Trench mortars blew men out of their clothes and horses into trees. In the spring of 1915, the Germans unleashed the first poison gas attack (the second drifted back on them when the wind shifted); by war’s end, over 91,000 men had died from gas attacks, and over 1,000,000 were disabled, many of them blinded. The next week they torpedoed an English luxury liner, the Lusitania, drowning over 1200 civilian passengers, and the following week they conducted the first serious aerial bombardment of a city when they dropped bombs from a zeppelin on London, killing 7 and wounding 35. Seven hundred more Londoners would die from aerial bombardments before the war ended.

Commanders in the war used 19th century frontal assaults to engage their enemies; against 20th century weaponry, the result was the purest slaughter. The British lost 20,000 dead and 20,000 wounded on the first morning of their 1916 offensive on the Somme in France; the battle would last months and claim over 1,180,000 casualties. In the same year at Verdun, a combined 1,000,000 Germans and French went down. Combined, that would almost empty out the city limits of Chicago. Neither battle moved the front lines significantly, and a stalemate on the Western Front drove soldiers into trenches to escape a lethal sleet of bullets and shells. These trenches extended over 300 miles; it was said you could walk from the English Channel to the Swiss border and not put your head above ground. Enemy artillery would pound these trenches in week-long barrages to soften them up, then commanders sent their men over the top into no-man’s land in the hopes of breaking through the enemy’s lines. That never happened, and corpse rats in no-man’s land grew so large feasting on the dead they were said to be the size of cats.

The stalemate lasted so long that the British government hired some Oxford mathematicians, who came to this gruesome conclusion: when every German man who could fight was dead, there would still be some Allied men alive. [Showing a photograph of a young boy] Here we see how desperate for men the Germans were by the end of the war; this boy was forced into the army in 1918. Were he in this school, he would be sitting in the balcony with the other eighth graders. The Germans even had this joke make the rounds of the trenches: “A wounded soldier loses a leg but is called back to duty. A doctor examining troops to see if they can fight doesn’t even glance up as the soldier hobbles before him. The doctor declares him fit for active duty. The wounded soldier looks at the doctor and says, ‘Next time I’ll get my head shot off and they will replace it with a wooden one like this wooden leg I drag around. Then I can come back here and be an army doctor just like you.’”

The land itself was mutilated; as the Roman historian Tacitus had written twenty centuries earlier, “They made it a desert and called it a peace.” The English soldier Eric Leeds gazed into No-Man’s Land and wrote, “I am staring at a sunlit patch of hell.”

Under this strain the initial support for war eroded and then disappeared. Men at the tip of the spear, as they call those who actually engaged the enemy in life-or-death struggles, often experienced shell-shock, or PTSD. [Showing a picture of a cowering man] The man on the left, any time he heard the word “bomb,” jumped under his bed. Hidden in bunkers to survive shelling from heavy artillery, the German author Erich Remarque, who survived several years of trench warfare and who wrote the classic war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, described being shelled in a bunker over many days this way: “Night again. We are deadened by the strain — a deadly tension that scrapes along one’s spine like a gapped knife. Our legs refuse to move, our hands tremble, our bodies are a thin skin stretched painfully over repressed madness, over an almost irresistible, bursting roar. We have neither flesh nor muscles any longer, we dare not look at one another for fear of some unspeakable thing. So we shut our teeth — it will end — it will end — perhaps we will come through.”

The French Interior Ministry estimates that 102 years after the end of the Battle of Vedun, 12 million unexploded shells still lie in the soil there. Everywhere in France, the fallout from the war lies in the ground like an enormous booby trap. So, in 1946 the French created the Department de Deminage. Since that time, the demineurs have collected more than 19 million artillery shells and 11 million grenades. Through their efforts, more than 2 million acres of France have been reclaimed from the explosive tools of war. But even cleared spaces may still harbor sleeping shells; in one year alone, 36 farmers died when their machinery hit uncollected shells. That same year, 51 civilians were hurt when they happened on a bomb or shell unexpectedly. Since 1946, more than 700 demineurs have died in the line of duty; it is the most dangerous job in the world, especially when they unearth shells filled with poison gas.

The stress of war finally led French soldiers to mutiny in 1917, as they refused to attack. Fifty-seven of the mutineers were executed by the French high command, and over 500 were sentenced to prison. The next time the French soldiers were forced over the top and into no-man’s land, they exited their trenches making the sounds of sheep, sounding like lambs being led to the slaughter. The British executed over 300 soldiers for desertion or cowardice, which you see about to happen in the picture on the right.

The war tilted decisively in the Allies favor when the US entered and a final German offensive sputtered near Paris. The Germans began to retreat, the Allies pressed them, the Kaiser abdicated and Soviet style workers groups took over several cities. The Germans signed the armistice at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. This was not a surrender, but a cease fire; however, the Germans had lost.

What is the legacy of this disaster? Disillusionment and despair, hatred, hunger, and disease. Pessimism replaced the pre-war optimism. The German soldier Erich Remarque noted in the forward to All Quiet on the Western Front, “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war.” A French soldier, Jules Romains, who survived the horror show at Verdun, wrote, “All of our talk of man’s dignity is but mockery unless and until a day comes when certain things will under no circumstances be required of him or accepted by him as inevitable. I no longer believe that any such day will ever come.”

[Showing a political cartoon] The German satirical magazine Simplicissimus published this postwar drawing of the mechanization of death, where nameless bodies are tossed in a mass grave by a monster employed by the perpetual motion machine factories behind him that endlessly supplied the means to kill while raking in fat profits for their owners. In Der Krieg, the great German artist Otto Dix drew a soldier with a missing jaw grinning at us, while his companion gives the finger to an indifferent world with his left hand, as his right arm is shot off below the elbow. The English poet Siegfried Sassoon hurled this curse at complacent people on the home fronts:

“I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.”

There was hatred everywhere. The British politician David Lloyd George won the first post-war election for prime minister on a simple slogan: “We will squeeze the orange until the pips squeak.” He meant that the victors would squeeze the Germans so hard it would be like you squeezing an orange so tightly that the seeds inside rubbed audibly together. Shown here on the right is the famous British writer Rudyard Kipling, whose son John was last seen staggering back toward his own lines from a battle early in the war and whose body was never found. After the war ended, he wrote, “The Germans are people with the hearts of beasts.”

The Allies maintained their naval blockade of Germany long after the armistice was signed, causing Germans to scrounge for food and leading to the starvation deaths of 90,000 people in 1918 and 1919. One of those most enraged by this was a former Austrian corporal in the German army who served on the Western Front and who almost died in a gas attack as the war ended. Here he is as he assumes command of Germany in January of 1933; he got his start in politics by criticizing the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war. His slogan reads, “Germany, awake!”

In that treaty, the Germans were forced to accept sole responsibility for causing the war, which is untrue but allowed the Allies to exact huge reparations payments from the losers. These payments totaled $132 billion. After making its initial annual payments, the Germans refused to pay any more; this led to a French invasion of the Ruhr Valley in Germany, where they tried to force Germans to work for them to send iron, steel, and coal to France for the missing reparations payments. The German government printed so much money to pay its workers that inflation soared. [Showing pictures] Here a woman empties a basketful of money to buy something from a butcher shop, and here is a German propaganda poster showing the French, represented by the kneeling woman, ripping the industrial products out of Germany. The caption reads, “Hands off the Ruhr.” The Germans made their final reparations payment in 2010, 92 years after their imposition.

German grievances gave Hitler his opportunity to exploit resentment and gain a following. In his earliest speeches, he endlessly attacked the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war, the Allies, the Weimar government in Germany, and, ominously, the Jews for causing Germany to surrender; he would never admit they had lost, building on the myth that the Germans had been stabbed in the back by weak leaders and pacifists at home. Had the Allied leaders, shown here as they crafted the Treaty of Versailles ending the war, given a more lenient peace, he might have remained a struggling artist selling postcards he painted and never have gained the traction to insinuate himself into the political consciousness of the German people.

To find hatred, you didn’t have to travel to Germany, France, or Britain. You only needed to cross the Mississippi at St. Louis and go a few miles to Collinsville, Illinois. Here, on April 4, 1918, a German immigrant coal miner, Robert Prager, was accused of spying for the Germans. Stripped naked and with a rope around his neck, he was paraded down Main Street, forced to sing patriotic songs, and walk across broken beer bottles that his captors threw at his bare feet. He professed his love for America and kissed the flag that had been draped over his shoulders, but this failed to move his tormentors, who threw the rope around a tree and raised him three times, yelling on the first heave, “Red,” on the second, “White,” and on the third, “Blue.” All eleven men accused in this lynching were acquitted, and the local newspaper editorialized, “The city does not miss Prager. His death has had a wholesome effect on Germans here and in the rest of the U. S.” No wonder Sigmund Freud, thinking about what the war revealed about human nature, wrote, “Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved….They are, on the contrary, creatures who are instinctively aggressive….As a consequence of this aggression, civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration.”

As the troops demobilized and dispersed to their homes around the world, they took a final lethal reminder of the war with them: the Spanish flu. This is misnamed, as it started at one of our army bases in Kansas and was spread into the trenches when Americans arrived in Europe in 1917. It infected 500,000,000 people worldwide, one-third of the world’s population, and killed between 30 and 100 million people; reliable death counts are not possible, but there is no doubt it was the greatest pandemic thus far in world history. In India alone, 7 million people died. From 1918 to 1919, it dropped the average life expectancy in the US by 12 years. It attacked the young and strong as well as the old and weak. Victims died within hours or two days of symptoms appearing, with their skin turning blue and lungs filling with fluids so that they suffocated. Morgues were overwhelmed, and some people buried family members in back yards or pastures, or in mass graves such as the ones being dug in the picture on the right. Ninety years later, in 2008, researchers determined that this flu was so deadly because a group of three genes weakened the victims’ bronchial tubes and lungs, paving the way for bacterial pneumonia to invade and colonize.

[Showing images of his family] Here is one of two places where WWI touched my life, as my grandfather, grandmother, and their oldest daughter, my Aunt Marilynn, all got this disease at the same time in 1919. My taciturn grandmother, in a rare moment where she spoke about her past life, told me that my grandfather and she were too weak to get up and help my then two-year old aunt, who moaned from her sick bed, “Momma, I’m hot, help.” Rural people with no neighbors and no access to doctors, all three somehow survived, but not unscathed: my aunt never developed cognitively after her brain was baked like this and died, in pain, over twenty years later as a full-grown woman with a child’s mind. My grandfather lived another twenty years, but he never regained his strength, tired easily, and had to push himself to finish his daily work so that he arrived home exhausted. Only my grandmother recovered; she died in her nineties. She lived to see one of her sons, my uncle Martin, go off to fight in WWII; it was the sequel to WWI, and in large part an outgrowth of unresolved issues from that earlier conflict. He died fighting the Japanese in the Pacific; they never found his body, and he has a grave marker in the family cemetery under which nothing rests but my father’s sadness. As Faulkner noted, the past isn’t dead; it’s not even past.

I leave you with these images, a song, and a few thoughts. Kathe Kollwitz was a great German artist whose 19-year-old son Peter was killed in the first year of the war. “There is in our lives a wound which will never heal. Nor should it,” she confided to a friend. Consumed with guilt and grief, she went to the cemetery in Belgium where her son is buried along with other German soldiers. Here she promised to build a memorial to him and the others there. [Showing an image] You see her final sculptures here; she is the one on the right, her husband is on the left. They are on their knees begging forgiveness for a war their generation could not prevent. Twenty-eight years later she would learn of the death of her grandson, named after her son Peter, while fighting in Russia. “The wars have spared me nothing,” as her portrait on the left shows. Her experiences were shared by many others.

In the early years of Elizabeth I’s rule of Britain, she was being pushed by her advisors to go to war in Scotland and with the French. Having heard them out, she looked at them and said, “I don’t like wars. They have uncertain outcomes.” Truer words have never been spoken. World War I led to World War II, the creation of the current situations in the Middle East that continue to cause death and suffering, and the realization that our death-dealing technologies had outstripped our abilities to send men onto battlefields and expect most of them to survive. Although some European leaders were hesitant to go to war, almost all did, and they and their descendants have had to live with the consequences. May we be smarter, or at least slower to act; when violence seems to be the only option left, we should recall what the scientist and author Isaac Asimov wrote: “Violence is the last resort of the incompetent.”

Let’s finish with a song from the Dropkick Murphys, an American Celtic punk rock band from Massachusetts, covered this song by the Scottish musician Eric Bogle. It tells the story of 19-year old Willie McBride, a young soldier gone to fight in France. Its lyrics and the images accompanying them are a reminder of the real war. [The song was played and images were shown.]

War is a poison chalice from which we can’t stop drinking. It’s time to put the chalice down. There have already been too many Willie McBrides.