Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Eleventh Hour


It was approaching the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month as I walked to the War Memorial at the center of Saint-Pierre-de-Maille, the little village in France where I am currently living. It was the 91st Anniversary of the end of World War I -- Armistice Day in France, Remembrance Day in Britain and Veterans Day in the US, but interestingly it is not celebrated in Germany. I guess this is a day for the victors, not the vanquished.

I wondered if there would be any type of official remembrance. In some villages, I understand, they still read the names of those who died in the war. In one particular village near the eastern border, the names that are recited are mostly German, because during the war that village was part of Germany.

On this day the monument in Saint-Pierre was decorated with French flags and fresh flowers, and La Poste across the street was closed because it is a national holiday, but, when the church bell chimed the eleventh hour, no one came. It seemed that the only one who wished to remember the meaning of this day, in this village, was this American historian who has long been fascinated by World War I.

On the monument are the names of the sixty-seven men from this village who lost their lives in World War I. By comparison, ten died in World War II. I know that in Britain there are those who say that because of the enormous loss of life during the First World War, military leaders made a concerted effort to limit the number of casualties during the Second World War. I wonder. I have visited war memorials in Scotland, Wales, England, and France, and I have always found the number of individuals killed in World War I to be significantly higher than the number that died in World War II, so perhaps it is true.

The Great War, as it was once called, was the world's first modern war, the war where technology began to play a significant role in the destruction of human life. It was, one might suggest, the beginning of the military-industrial complex.

Standing alone, looking at the single stone soldier standing guard, I found it sad that no one joined me at the monument. Perhaps this lack of interest helps to explain why we continue to fight so many wars. We are quick to forget the human suffering involved – the men, the women and children who are the victims of war.

During the Twentieth Century, well over a 100 million people died in war. It is a sad commentary, especially as we look at the prospects for the future.

2 comments:

  1. The difference between the World Wars seemed to be that the men who ran the first war saw the soldiers as merely tools in the fight. 54,000 British men died the first day of the Battle of the Somme and the answer to the generals was to throw more men at the battle. Perhaps that happened on the Eastern front in World War II but that wasn't how the Allied generals thought of their men.

    But no matter how many we kill in war, we should keep in mind that nature is much better at killing us. World War I ended with about 25 million dead in 4 years. The Spanish Flu killed between 50 and 100 million in 18 months in 1917-1918. 4,000 Americans died in Irag in 6 years. 35,000 Americans die from the flu every year.

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  2. The major difference in death numbers came from the massive change in war technologies between the Great War and the Second World War. In the Great War you had a number of incredibly effective defensive weapons (most notably the machine gun) and no offensive technology to counter with. As hidious as it was, the generals were unable to develop any alternatives to massive infantry charges.

    By 1939 the airplane and tank were able to do what soldiers had not been able to in 1914 -- break through the opposing ranks. War returned to a war of movement.

    Now if we want to consider CIVILIAN deaths ....

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