November 11, 2010 was celebrated as the Veteran’s Day holiday paying homage to all American soldiers who have served their country over the years, but is borne of a very specific event day referred to as Armistice Day. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, combat operations ceased in armistice ending for all purposes the cataclysmic conflict known as ironically known at the time as the Great War, and eventually, as the combatants were doomed to repeat the horror twenty years later, as World War 1. The effects of all wars are devastating but this one in particular seemed to hold a special irrationality and sorrow. The war was fought across multiple continents but prism of death and destruction focused on a fairly narrow 50 mile killing field stretched out from the North Sea to the Swiss border, gashing France with battles named for her three natural river barriers, the Meuse, the Marne, and the Somme. I visited Verdun in my youth, where an estimated 1.5 million casualties exhausted any semblance of rationality to the battle and devastated an entire generation of French youth. Its poison to the French nation shows itself in microcosm in the village of Thones, France a town of 5800 inhabitants, where I visited the village’s World War 1 memorial in 2009, commemorating the deaths of over 200 of the village’s sons in the Great War. Taking into account the population of women, children, and old men unavailable to service, it is obvious to project through the loss of so many young men, the end of this town’s and projectionally of France’s economic capacity, generational proliferation, and vitality.
To Great Britian, Armistice Day is an equally poignant memorial day, and was painfully scarred this year by the insensitive and caddish demonstration of muslim youths purposely disrupting a national moment of commerative silence for their own unaware, selfish, and petty complaints. The years separating the incredible losses of the British nation have obviously made callous the youth of Britian today who have benefited from their countrymen’s dedicated service. It would do all well to relive the events of one day of that conflict to understand the enormous sacrifice that separated Great Britian forever from her position as a leader in the world economy and politic.
On July 1, 1916, a single day in the Great War, 100, 000 soldiers of the British Commonwealth surged out of their trenches and pressed out to engaged their German enemies at the Somme. The surge followed an artillery barrage dedicated to dissolve the German lines with over 250,000 shells concentrated over one hour from 1000 field guns, 180 heavy guns, and 245 heavy howitzers (John Keegan). The British commanders Haig and Rawlinson had little doubt the incapacitating nature of such a barrage and assumed back breaking separations in the German defensive line and resolve, to be rapidly exploited by the spontaneous charge of the 100,000. The assumption was that the nearby holocaust at Verdun had weakened German capacity for resistance and that such concentrated power would show irreversible line collapse. The fantastical plan seemed to ignore almost two years already of similar attempts and failures by both sides. The very heart and soul of British youth, drawn so romantically into the war by a desire to triumph in similar personal fashion to their forefathers’ glory in much smaller conflicts, exploded out of the trenches that morning on cue and surged across the fields to engage the apparently weakened foe, only to discover almost unaffected German positions with impenetrable defensive structures armed with the modern scythe of death itself, the machine gun battery. 100,000 went out , and in the day of greatest loss to the British nation in history 60,000 did not come back, with imperceptible gains in the line overwhelmed by the stunning losses of vital manpower. By the end of the day, the battle, for all purposes, was over, but in the cruel tradition of this most cruel of wars, crawled on until November without identifiable strategic gain, until a total of 680,000 British Commonwealth troops were claimed as casualties, in this one, this singularly obscene battle.
Armistice Day is now forward 92 years from the actual cessation of battle, but the damage to the romantic notions of western civilization’s view of conflict as a means to an end were forever destroyed. there is no moment more deserving of reverential silence then the sacrifice of so many who willingly separated their personal life from the desire to complete “a war to end forever all wars”. Such personal demonstrations of sacrifice for ideas bigger than oneself is a particularly poignant and unique human trait.
On the morning of July 1, 1916, a 23 year old soldier named William Noel Hodgson, a British Lieutenant joined his 100,000 comrades in the surge, and was soon one of the 60,000 casualties of a war day like no other in British history. He felt his day in history and prior to the charge from the trench left us this beautiful reminder of why no matter how many years separate us from his charge, that we take a moment to remember. To you, William Hodgson and all like you…
“I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of Thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say goodbye to all of this!
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.”