Friday, 7 November 2014

Remembrance Day

This is not going to be a fun blog to write or read.

It will start off as unpleasant, then move into shocking on its way to gruesome.  Then when we are all thoroughly depressed i'll offer up what seems to be a positive reprieve where we get to see the decency of humanity shrine through one of the worst times in history.

But that will be short lived because it would be disingenuous to stop there.  Because this isn't a fictional storybook I'm writing about.  This is about a real time in history that should not be forgotten nor rewritten to make us think about the goodness of humanity.

No this is not one of those stories that has a conflict that is happily resolved in the end.

This is a story about the soldiers who went through some of the worst experiences in history of which there can be no happy ending.

This is about World War 1.

I'll have to preface this blog (as I really should all of them) with the fact that i'm a complete amateur who reads and listens to history books and podcasts on a very recreational level.  I'm clearly not an expert and, as such, should not be taken seriously and in fact you should consider everything I write suspect.

What i'm doing in this blog is taking my incredibly limited knowledge of numerous battles and scenarios in WW1 and condensing them down into one extremely general view of the conditions that soldiers fought under.

In actuality there were hundreds of unique encounters involving millions of little stories that I couldn't possibly do justice.

So without further ado, here is what I'll be thinking about during our Remembrance Day.


War was once considered by some to be a noble and glorious endeavor.  Of note Theodore Roosevelt who exited office right before WW1.  Soldiers were nice enough to line up in neat rows and take turns shooting at one another.

Once one side realized that they were outmatched a white flag would be waved and the enemy commander would accept his opponent's sword in a ceremonial surrender.

Afterwards, the surrendered commander would be treated with the utmost honor and even have dinner with his, up until recently, opponent.

Now this is of course a completely rose colored view of how soldiers fought prior to WW1.  However there is some truth to it and it serves to demonstrate the extreme change that will soon occur with the rapid technological advancement leading up to the Great War.

The war to end all wars began with the traditional rank and file formations of wars past.

However with the advent of the machine gun these formations were quickly decimated.  Old generals set in their ways would send in further troops in hopes of overwhelming these machine guns to no avail.

Quickly, but not before countless were dead, the generals realised the error of their ways and would order a retreat.

The shattered survivors would then regroup and the enemy commander may send in their cavalry troops in a counter attack to quickly route the survivors (another old school tactic).  Only to sucumb to the same fate of their enemy as they turn their own machine guns on the advancing cavalry.

Soon both groups realize that to advance means certain death and order their troops to hunker down in large dug out trenches to shelter them from arms fire.

But these troops' reprieve will be short lived for the slow moving artillery has finally made it to the battlefield.  The impact that modern day artillery had on the battlefield cannot be understated.

There were battles, along the lines of the one i'm currently creating, that started out with trenches in heavily forested areas.  However within hours the artillery fire would quickly turn this forest with trees that have matured over hundreds of years into rubble.  Within days there will be no sign that there once was a forest there and the entire battlefield will resemble the surface of the moon.  A desolate wasteland dotted with craters.

The only soldier to witness this wasteland would be dead.  For any soldier foolish enough to poke his head out of his trench would be quickly killed by shrapnel.  And now his fellow soldier has to remain hunkered down next to his fallen friend's corpse because to attempt to bury him would just mean another body to be added to the trench.  Just remain hunkered down and listen to the artillery barrage continue all day in rapid succession lest ye forget where you are.

Occasionally there would be a cessation of the artillery fire.  But this of course would only be followed by you witnessing a blanket of the enemy forces launching a forward offensive consisting of new troops with flamethrowers, jackets full of grenades, and all kinds of new daggers and close combat weapons aimed at finding any way to end your life.

Luckily you too have your own machine guns and artillery to allow you to push back the offensive and keep this engagement up indefinitely.

Now these are obviously some pretty awful conditions (it gets worse, it always gets worse) of which the mind can only take so much.  And how did some soldiers deal with this?  Humor.  There are actual reports, of the exact scenario that I've depicted, whereby soldiers would wake up every morning and greet their fallen comrades' corpses in order to make light of their situation (remember no way to bury them unless you want a bullet to the head).

The only way to survive this is to remain hunkered down and wait until you were  replaced by relief troops.  As for the relief troops?  Well they have to first make it through that artillery barrage with the only reward of living that same existence as the relieved soldiers.

Umm I promised an uplifting part where we get to see a little bit of humanity shine through didn't I?

Well, battles like these were proving to be stalemates.  Both sides evenly matched and having extreme difficulty gaining any ground.  As such there were large trench lines facing each other with enemy forces in fairly close proximity to one another.

In the lead up to Christmas troops on both sides began singing songs.  This led to a lessening of tensions to the point that both sides were able to cross into no man's land and exchange greetings, presents and even play a game of football.

This sounds like a a made up fairytale to take away the absolute horror but there are official accounts of this occurring to one degree or another along the entire battle lines. A good read can be found here.

The higher command on both sides weren't very happy with this development however.  They were concerned that this may lead to their force's willingness to shed the blood of their temporary brothers a little more difficult.

Fortunately (and I use this here very sarcastically), their fears would be short lived.

Because of the stalemate that had developed between the two sides, new methods of killing had to be utilized and so began the use of chemical weapons.

This involved turning the very air you breathed into pure torture where, if you weren't quick enough to put on your mask or the masks hadn't arrived to deal with the threat yet, you would die one of the most agonizing deaths imaginable.

But it didn't just turn the air into a weapon.

At this point in the war the battleground had been completely torn up with constant artillery fire.  Some of the trenches had to be abandoned because they were full of water.

Well the chemical weapons detonated on the battlefield would seep into these water trenches turning the water into poison.  Some of the soldiers trying to cross the trenches to the newly dug trenches would fall in.  And any noble attempt by a fellow soldier to save their friend's life would often lead to them both drowning.

Of course at this point in the war supplies were also very hard to come by seeing as the supplies were having a hard time making it through the artillery fire.

So some soldiers would take the risk of drinking this contaminated water due to severe dehydration (I'm sure the gas mask didn't help with the overheating).  Never mind that they see the bodies of their fallen friends floating nearby.

Soon each side began to view one another as completely barbaric and less then human.
No there will be no more Christmas truces after this point.

Alright I think that's about all that I can handle.  This is some pretty hard stuff to digest and i'm only listening and reading about it.  Let alone having to live it.

There really isn't any point to this blog.  There is no message I'm trying to preach whatsoever.
I'm not trying to be gruesome for gruesome's sake, nor am I trying to portray any group in this war as worse than another.

I'm also fully aware that this isn't the only time that humanity has witnessed such atrocities.  In fact we have been finding all kinds of new and horrible ways to kill one another since the beginning of time.

Actually that might be the point.

I'm writing this stuff down as a means to never forget, to always be mindful, and to remember all the terrible things that nobody should suffer, but so many have, that I haven't.

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