Je me souviens
The War to End All Wars. That’s what they called the First World War at the time. There’d never been anything like it before. Waves of young men leaping out of trenches and charging into machine gun fire. For God and country. That’s what they thought at least. Then they died, in the mud and blood of France and countless other places. Twenty million of them. For comparison, less than a million people died in the American Civil War, one of the largest wars in history until then. No one was prepared for the carnage of World War One. How could they be? Then a generation later came the Second World War, with its own horrors and holocausts…and the War to End All Wars slipped from sight.
Not from memory though. Millions of people still remembered the horror of World War One. A handful still do. Now there’s one less. On January 20th Louis de Cazenave died in his sleep, leaving just one last poilu (French World War One veteran) alive. When I was a kid I’m sure there were quite a few Great War veterans alive, but I don’t remember talking with any of them. I wish I had. My great uncle fought in the war, but he was one of the twenty million, all I have is his pictures and medals. His memories died with him.
Louis de Cazenave remembered though. And he never forgot. He fought at the Chemin de Dames, one of the most disastrous actions of the war. The French attacked a German held ridge, but the Germans were forewarned and the attack was a catastrophe. Forty thousand French soldiers died on the first day alone. Some contemporary reports say the French soldiers bleated like sheep as they advanced, acknowledging that they were lambs led to the slaughter. They don’t show that in Rambo movies. Made an impression on Louis, in a 2005 interview he said “War is something absurd, useless, that nothing can justify. Nothing.” He’d come a long way from the uniformed young man pictured above.
It was a different world before World War One. Young men in the west won’t charge into machine gun fire any more. People actually believed in honour, and duty to God and country. By the war’s end honour and duty had been replaced by propaganda and preaching, the modern world had begun. And all the “winners” of this dreadful conflict wanted was revenge, so the blame for the war was conveniently heaped on Germany, since the countries that had actually started the war no longer existed. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars, instead it was the preamble to an even greater slaughter.
Louis de Cazenave was a brave man. He had the courage to walk into machine gun fire. And he had the courage to say it was all a terrible mistake. With his passing, one of our last few living memories of The Great War died. When the last memory of a terrible event dies, maybe in some way the fallen are finally at peace. The remembered pain is almost gone, memory becomes history.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Louis de Cazenave is with his fallen friends and companions now, God rest his soul.
(The above image of Louis de Cazenave dates from before 1927 and is public domain under US copyright law. The above poem was written by a Canadian soldier in 1915 and is also public domain. And yes, I deleted the third stanza because it reads like a recruiting poster. Sacrilege, I know, can my Canadian readers, friends, and relatives ever forgive me?)