by Guy Somerset
When I was a youngster we still had a school assembly at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month and stood silent for a full minute to remember the fallen from World War One. Given the modern world has no time to waste even a second on the dead I would be shocked if this tradition remains in place anywhere. (Well, almost anywhere.)
On a holiday commonly misunderstood as glorying in war rather than celebrating freedom from tyranny, it behooves us on July 4th this centennial year to reflect upon some of that other maelstrom’s largely forgotten aspects.
One the more personal yet popularly expunged experiences connected with the Great War was the large number of families in generations afterward who had one or more maiden Aunts in the house. This was due many of their darlings having been slaughtered a decade or more prior. Aside from the tremendously overpowering tragedy of the millions of lost sweethearts were the subsequent multi-millions of unborn children and their exponential descendants. It was a fact of life now simply forgotten.
Another widespread incidence was the shame of many who survived the conflict but were injured. Casually perusing photographs of public gatherings, company picnics and the like in years after the war we might be struck how fortunate a town or parish was to have no one severely crippled. This would be error. Many men at that time had deep feelings of indignity exhibiting their infirmities. Any locality pictures were snapped one can rest assured there were broken men at home embarrassed to be seen.
In a graphic exhibition of combat’s physical cost, after the conflict a project was undertaken in an empathetic attempt at what might now be called "mainstreaming" the maimed. Portraits were commissioned of young men who had given the ultimate sacrifice; not their lives, but living a life after war so crushing many would prefer death. This is to say nothing of millions of "shell shock" survivors.
Cultural and artistic tolls upon Europe were extreme. Numerous sites of historic value were destroyed. Several of the scenes in Van Gogh’s paintings but a few decades prior exist now only on canvas, demolished by the incessant intervals of occupying armies. The ambulance driver groups (in which one of my own ancestors served) are often cited as cauldrons of development for writers or industrialists; Cummings, Hemingway, and Maugham being notable examples.
Yet at least as much genius was lost as was gained. Edith Wharton, whose talent had been on the ascent, ceased any notable literary production for the better part of a decade due to numerous relief efforts. Henry James likewise endured a dearth of significant output, writing to a friend of the war’s effect on artists, "…such realities play the devil even with his very best imaginations and intentions."
One of the lesser apprehended aspects of war, further lessened by the romanticism of nascent motion pictures, were unsanitary conditions. Intermittent food, near-universal lice infestation, and a plague of rats which approached the size of housecats were all commonalties in the trenches of either army. Naturally such horrors were later difficult to speak of publicly or transmute to entertaining celluloid.
Disease is another underappreciated aspect of the conflict. In 1917 alone 150,000 French soldiers were discharged from the front as active tuberculosis cases. Due food shortages and sundry unsanitary conditions the rate affected even civilians in Paris with 358 deaths per 100,000 compared to 188 per 100,000 in New York, a city of relatively comparable size outside the theater. During four years of war the combined mortality in France from TB alone was over 290,000. These numbers are for a single nation but are representative of the European Allied powers while Central Powers fared even worse.
Battle figures are often cavalierly thrown about, thereby frequently losing their impact as numerical curiosities. However statistics can serve their purpose if placed in proper context.
The French are often maligned for "giving up" during the Second World War by those who have no understanding of what was lost in the First. The casualty numbers for men of draft age were 6 in 10. Of all the major allied combatants, including Russia, it was France which suffered the highest percentage loss by population. Discipline was enforced by draconian measures, including quasi-decimation.
For Britain the war can be illustrated by one of the grossest human tragedies in history, the First Battle of the Somme. In a single day, and for an advance of 1 mile on a 3.5 mile front, approximately 20,000 men were sacrificed, though some lingered a week in No Man’s Land. The final official tally was 57,470 casualties with 19,240 killed. In fact, 60% of all officers involved were felled upon its initiation.
Socially the war was devastating for all classes but especially the aristocracy. Among British high-born the casualty rate was one in five, much higher than the one in eight for middle and lower castes. Largely this is because those boys were more likely to be officers and carry charges directly into barbed-wire and machine-guns. Worse than mere loss of life was evisceration of the best of life; future leaders in every field. Those most educated, most gifted, most prepared to secure the success of the Empire were cut down. The kingdom lost the exceptional and was left with the adequate to lead its nation. Whatever advantage gentry had on the Titanic was definitively thrown over at the Somme.
The Russians built a high pyre to the war. At the Battle of Tannenberg were 78,000 killed or wounded with another 92,000 taken prisoner. Aside from the fallen Russian suffering may have been the worst, draftees often fighting without weapons, with makeshift shoes even in snow, and virtually starving. Exemplifying this, in December 1914 the Russian army had approximately 6.5 million men but just over 4.5 million rifles. The nation endured the highest military fatalities numerically at more than 2,250,000 which in part prompted a revolution. By March 1917 the Czar abdicated and Russia withdrew the field.
Italian contribution to the war dead was largely the result of a single front. Repeated battles along the Isonzo Front saw catastrophic results and accounted for half of national casualties; 300,000 of some 600,000. Between May 1915 and August 1917 Italians assaulted the zone approximately every three months. This included bitter winters and beginning December 13, 1916, 10,000 soldiers were killed by avalanche. Every generation especially warm summers reveal a legacy of corpses under melting glaciers.
Minor allies met crushing losses as well. For example 58% of the entire Serbian army was lost, 25% of its entire population was lost, and 57% of its entire male population was lost; this of the race which produced Nikola Tesla a few generations earlier.
Entering the conflagration years later than the major powers, Americans were spared the worst of the carnage; however there were tragedies of particular note. On June 4, 1918, at Belleau Wood more than 5,000 of the 8,000 Marines participating were either killed or wounded.
Although Germany sacrificed over 2 million soldiers in the war the lot of German citizens at home was also precarious. The relatively new concept of "total war" largely erased the divisions between fighters and noncombatants, the result being resources and food were redirected from civilians to soldiers. Privation was staved off by strict rationing and price controls until the British Blockade took its toll. The colder months of 1916-1917 were known as the "Turnip Winter" and the meat allowance in 1916 was 30% of prewar levels and had fallen to 12% by 1918 with the same being true of butter, cheese, eggs and fish. The consequence was deaths of 430,000 civilians, nearly one-fourth that of those in combat.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire faced four main fronts, three of which proved disastrous. Fighting with Serbia in 1914 led to stalemate in terms of territory but a human toll of 264,000 men out of a force of 462,000. On the Russian front at Galicia Austria-Hungary lost 324,000 of 950,000. On the Italian front at the Piave River Austria-Hungary saw casualties of 150,000 with 25,000 captured and at Vittorio Veneto losses included 35,000 dead or wounded with another 426,000 taken prisoner. The killing not abating, dissolution of the empire resulted in numerous internecine massacres.
Of all those who stumbled into war, foremost were the Ottomans. Even as Mehmet V declared with Germany were numerous internal anti-German plots and assassinations. Combined with burdens of the recognized front was an Arab Revolt as well as sporadic Armenian rebellions; the latter of which led to the Tehcir Law and what many historians deem genocide with 1.5 million victims. When the armistice was signed on the British Agamemnon 5 million subjects, or 25% of the prewar population, were dead.
To illustrate the obscene monotony of carnage there was not one, not two, but five "Battles of Ypres." More monstrously, repetitive slaughter for the same few hundred feet was far from an exception across the panorama.
These were the costs of the First World War. Absent the dropping of atomic bombs there is no comparison whatsoever between the preeminent conflict of the early Twentieth Century and those of the early Twenty-First. To make such specious claims is injurious to our predecessors as well as those of us who knew them. There is unequivocally no situation outside nuclear war or global pandemic in which we can envision the better part of an entire generation being snuffed out or psychologically broken.
Thus on this Independence Day take a moment to remember the celebrations we enjoy in the show of light are but pale reflection of the terrible actuality. Let these be for us not a glorification of war but a rejoicing that war has ended.
Guy Somerset writes from somewhere in America. He is a lawyer by profession.