It seems to me that as we approach our national holiday known as Veterans Day, we should take a look at the circumstances that existed when the event that triggered this holiday occurred – you see, this celebration wasn’t always known as Veterans Day. When I was a youngster, we celebrated Armistice Day on Nov. 11 by pausing for a couple of minutes in silence at 11 in the morning to commemorate the end of what we now call World War I, but then was simply referred to as “The Great War” or “The War To End All Wars”. The guns fell silent and the carnage of that war ceased at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 – 100 years ago this month.
So why go way back there? After all, there’s no one alive today who was around then. That’s true, but there are still some of us whose family members were directly effected by that war and our lives have overlapped theirs. As a result, we have some perspective why this war was called “The War To End All Wars.”.
On my Sweetheart-for-Life’s side of our family, her dad, my father-in-law, served in the army in France during the war. On several occasions I tried to get him to talk about his experiences as a “Dough Boy” – which was the affectionate name for the ordinary soldier back then. I could never get him to talk about what happened to him or around him – he would simply change the subject. He was fortunate in that he returned home with his body intact – unlike thousands of other “Dough Boys” who were killed or maimed, especially as a result of “trench warfare” with its artillery barrages, barbed wire, and machine gun “nests”. (This was the first war in which machine guns capable of firing hundreds of rounds a minute and inflicting mass casualties had been used extensively.)
Her mom’s brother wasn’t so lucky as his lungs were damaged by poison gas – introduced as a means to break the stalemate of trench warfare. He survived but the effects stayed with him the rest of his life as the physical effects of gas were agonizing. Although only 3 per cent of gas casualties proved immediately fatal, hundreds of thousands of ex-soldiers continued to suffer for years after the war.
On my side of our family, my mom was a teenager in England during the war. She told us how worried they were at a new development in warfare – bombs dropped at night from the air on cities far from the battle front. These huge flying weapons systems, known as Zeppelins, were lighter than air, filled with hydrogen, and held together by a steel framework. They could fly to England at about 85 mph and carry about two tons of bombs, usually a combination of explosives and incendiaries. These airships killed more than 500 people and injured over a thousand – civilian casualties of a new weapons system.
Winged aircraft had some limited use as reconnaissance vehicles before the war, but their role greatly expanded with aerial bombing of troops and military facilities along with air-to-air combat. And we shouldn’t forget another deadly innovation in warfare – the tank – which was invented to breach the trenches.
Perhaps the most feared and despised new weapon was the submarine – the silent killer from the depths that could destroy unsuspecting ships of all kinds, including passenger liners. On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat sunk the British luxury liner, the RMS Lusitania. 1,198 people lost their lives, including 128 Americans. Its sinking caused immense moral outrage both in Britain and in the US and was a major factor in the US ultimately declaring war against Germany.
This was the situation when the Armistice was signed on Nov. 11 and why the war was considered “The War To End All Wars” . You see, warfare had become too dreadful, too atrocious, too inhumane to be engaged in ever again – a horrific object lesson if there ever was one. In post-war years attempts to avoid war included: limiting armaments; banning the use of poison gas; and organizing the League of Nations as a means of peacefully settling disputes between nations.
Well, the fact that Armistice Day has now morphed into Veterans Day recognizing those who have served our country by military service including that in numerous armed conflicts shows how unfulfilled that goal has been. But, you know, the primary object lesson from “The War To End All Wars” shouldn’t be forgotten – war is not the way to resolve problems between countries. At least that’s how it seems to me.
Bill Taylor, a regular Greene County Daily columnist and local area resident, may be contacted at [email protected]