I happen to be reading “History of the World War“, by Francis March, as this year’s Memorial Day approaches. While it’s common knowledge that war is hell, many people forget how horrific World War One really was. With the death of the last kn0wn World War One veteran barely three months ago, it is quickly fading from living memory.
Lest we forget, here are some excerpts from the book (pg. 220):
Trench warfare occupied most of the time and made nine-tenths of the discomforts of the soldiers of both armies. If proof of the adaptive capacity of the human animal were needed, it is afforded by the manner in which the men burrowed in vermin-infested earth and lived there under conditions of Arctic cold, frequently enduring long deprivations of food, fuel, and suitable clothing. During the early stages of the war, before men became accustomed to the rigors of the trenches, many thousands died as a direct result of the exposure. Many thousands of others were incapacitated for life by “trench feet,” a group of maladies covering the consequences of exposure to cold and water which in those early days flowed in rivulets through most of the trenches. The trenches at Gallipoli had their own special brand of maladies. Heatstroke and a malarial infection were among these disabling agencies. Trench fever, a malady beginning with a headache and sometimes ending in partial paralysis and death, was another common factor in the mortality records…
Trench warfare brings with it new instruments. There are the flame projectors, which throw fire to a distance of approximately a hundred feet. The Germans were the first to use these, but they were excelled in this respect by the inventive genius of the nations opposing them.
The use of poison gas, the word being used in its broad sense, is now general. It was first used by the Germans, but as in the case of flame throwers, the Allies soon gained the ascendency.
The first use of asphyxiating gas was by the Germans during the first battle of Ypres. There the deadly compound was mixed in huge reservoirs back of the German lines. From these extended a system of pipes with vents pointed toward the British and Canadian lines. Waiting until air currents were moving steadily westward, the Germans opened the stop-cocks shortly after midnight and the poisonous fumes swept slowly, relentlessly forward in a greenish cloud that moved close to the earth. The result of that fiendish and cowardly act was that thousands of men died in horrible agony without a chance for their lives.
Among the novelties introduced in that conflict, March counts: Tanks, hand-grenades, aerial bombing, poison gas, machine guns and flame-throwers.
Reading the book, I can’t help but be amazed at the loyalty people felt toward their respective tribes. For example, the German navel officer Von Tirpitz (pg. 144):
… admired the English. His children had been brought up in England, as was also his wife. He imitated the English, but on the day of the declaration of war, he absolutely forbade his family to talk English, and he made a bonfire of his fine scientific library of English books.
Fanaticism such as this inevitably lead to a cheapening of human life and the rapid expansion of the conflict. After World War Two, many Europeans looked back and wondered if patriotism justified such enormous suffering and destruction. Thus was sown the seed of destruction, among Western nations, when it came into fashion to adopt the opposite extreme. This will lead, ultimately, to even more suffering and destruction.