Monday, November 11, 2019

A Lost Commemoration

     If you’ve ever taken an interest in what was once called “The Great War” – it’s unlikely you have, as very few persons seem to know anything much about it – you might be aware of how it was concluded:

     Armistice Day is commemorated every year on November 11 to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I, which took effect at eleven o'clock in the morning—the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918. The date was declared a national holiday in many allied nations, and coincides with Remembrance Day and Veterans Day, public holidays.

     Germany had approached the Allied Powers about an armistice, as with the addition of American and Canadian troops its forces were badly outnumbered, and the naval blockade of its major ports had brought its logistical situation near to catastrophe. The Allies dictated the date, time, and place of the armistice signing for the obvious symbolic value.

     World War I was one of my obsessions for much of my young adulthood. I studied its genesis, its inception, its many twists and turns, and its social, economic, and political outcomes for twenty years. My need to understand it paralleled physicists’ need to understand quantum mechanics and men’s need to understand women. All three are hopeless causes, but some needs know nothing of hope.

     A few years ago, I wrote:

     World War I remains the greatest man-made tragedy in all of history: a brutal, pointless, utterly avoidable conflagration that ended a century of peace and destroyed the optimism and confidence that had created the modern free world. Twenty million died during the war proper, including most of the young men of France and Germany. Twenty million more died in the influenza plague that followed.

     Fixated on symbolism, the Allied Powers demanded that the Germans sign the armistice agreement at exactly eleven o'clock on November 11, 1918: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. One year later, the Treaty of Versailles that supposedly ended the war and established peace proved to be, in the words of General Ferdinand Foch, only "an armistice for twenty years." Perhaps it's for the best that no one remembers the "Great War" as a thing of patriotic glory.

     The “Great War’s” enervation of all of Europe was the soil from which the horrors of Nazism and Communism sprouted. The Old World wasn’t just war-weary; it was intellectually and spiritually devastated. Both sides had gone to war enthusiastically, in a nationalism-powered frenzy. Both sides expected a quick victory. Indeed, so did the analysts of the day, mostly for economic reasons. The shattering of those illusions, coupled to the war’s physical and demographic devastation, destroyed Europe’s belief in progress, human improvement, and the essential goodness of Man.

     Armistice Day – Remembrance Day, in the British Isles – was intended to honor the millions that had given their lives to the war. Many of those millions were conscripts. They had no choice and no control over their fates. They did what they were ordered to do, often knowing that it would probably cost their lives. The mass attacks of the Somme, Verdun, Ypres, and Passchendaele took lives at a rate incomprehensible to contemporary students of warfare. Those attacks were ordered by telephone, by generals who treated their soldiers’ lives as counters in a ghastly game. Few of those generals lost their own lives to the war.

     Today, we call November 11 “Veterans’ Day.” But we have no living veterans of World War I. No one who fought in that conflagration remains to tell us what it was like. All we have are written records, some photographs, and a few poems.

     I have a special fondness for Australia, for reasons beyond the scope of this essay. At the time of World War I, Australia was not yet politically independent; it answered to the demands of the British Crown and government. Accordingly, as the war dragged on, Australian forces were assembled and dispatched into the conflict at several points, most notably a uniquely horrible flesh-grinder of a battle at Gallipoli, in Asia Minor. Peter Weir’s striking movie about the event captures some of the horror the Australian forces endured.

     On a personal level, that horror is best captured in a song written by Eric Bogle:

When I was a young man I carried me pack
And I lived the free life of the rover.
From the Murry's green basin to the dusty outback,
Well, I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in 1915 my country said, "Son,
It's time you stop rambling, there's work to be done."
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they marched me away to the war.

And the band played Waltzing Matilda,
As the ship pulled away from the quay
And midst all the cheers, flag waving and tears,
We sailed off for Gallipoli.

It's well I remember that terrible day,
How our blood stained the sand and the water
And of how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk, he was ready, he primed himself well.
He rained us with bullets, and showered us with shell,
And in five minutes flat, he'd blown us all to hell,
Nearly blew us back home to Australia.

And the band played Waltzing Matilda,
As we stopped to bury our slain,
And we buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs,
Then we started all over again.

Those who were living just tried to survive
In that mad world of blood, death and fire.
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
While around me the corpses piled higher.
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head
And when I awoke in me hospital bed
And saw what it had done, sure I wished I was dead.
I never knew there were worse things than dying.

For I'll go no more Waltzing Matilda,
All around the green bush far and free
To hunt and to pace, a man needs both legs,
No more waltzing Matilda for me.

They collected the crippled, the wounded, the maimed,
And they sent us back home to Australia.
The armless, the legless, the blind and the insane,
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.
And when our ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thanked Christ there was no one there waiting for me
To grieve, to mourn and to pity.

But the Band played Waltzing Matilda
As they carried us down the gangway,
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared,
Then they turned all their faces away.

So now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving their dreams and past glory,
I see the old men all tired, stiff and sore
Those forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask "What are they marching for?"
And I ask myself the same question.

But the band plays Waltzing Matilda,
And the old men still answer the call,
But year after year, the numbers get fewer
Someday, no one will march there at all.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda.
Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts can be heard as they march by the billabong
Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?

     Have a nice day.


pc-not said...

I recall from over 50 years ago studying this tragic event in World History class. The combined allied and German killed just in the Battle of Verdun alone were over 700 thousand. By comparison, our own Civil War produced over 600,000 killed in four years, it being the bloodiest conflict in our 243 year history.

My mother's earliest childhood memory was of the noise created by the banging of pots and pans and cries of joy in her neighborhood, in celebration of the armistice in 1918. She was two and a half. Vaguely remember speaking with some WW1 vets. Wish I had asked more questions of them.

HoundOfDoom said...

And now here we are all over the middle east. For what, exactly? It seems we've not learned a thing.

furball said...

The song was perfect, Fran.