90 years ago today the War to End All Wars ended, ushering in the decades of peace and prosperity the world has enjoyed since.
“We set to work to bury people. We pushed them into the sides of the trenches but bits of them kept getting uncovered and sticking out, like people in a badly made bed. Hands were the worst; they would escape from the sand, pointing, begging – even waving! There was one which we all shook when we passed, saying, “Good morning,” in a posh voice. Everybody did it. The bottom of the trench was springy like a mattress because of all the bodies underneath…”
—Leonard Thompson – quoted in Ronald Blythe, Akenfield
Nice picture eh? He won’t be in any parades. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the the eleventh month in 1918 the Allies signed an armistice with Germany, thus bringing The Great War to an official end. In western Europe at least, fighting continued in parts of the Middle East and Russia for some years to come. The armistice did mark the end of the terrible trench warfare on the western front, where millions of German, French, and British troops marched into machine gun and artillery fire to be mowed down like so many stalks of wheat. Countless lives sacrificed to capture and recapture tiny amounts of cratered land, possibly the largest and most pointless military slaughter in history.
Today the war is all but forgotten. For one thing, the veterans are almost all long dead, there’s maybe ten left alive in Europe. In fact most people alive today probably never even met a Great War veteran. For another thing, the Great War was eclipsed by World War Two just a generation later. While the slaughter in World War Two was not as concentrated as that if World War One, it did kill far more people and left a vastly wider swath of destruction. In a very real sense though, World War Two was a continuation of World War One. Heck, numerous wars including the War in Iraq trace their roots to World War One.
As one might expect, The War to End All Wars didn’t turn out anything like anyone expected. Wars almost never turn out the way they were expected, or more importantly, the way the people promoting the war claimed. In the case of World War One, leaders confidently predicted that the war would be over in months, the troops would be home for Christmas. Well, they weren’t, though some managed to celebrate Christmas anyhow in the famous 1914 Christmas Truce.
So November eleventh was celebrated as Armistice Day in Allied Countries after the war. After World War Two it turned into Veterans Day in the USA and Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth. It’s a day to remember the lost in all wars, and the sacrifice they made. In Berkeley the University of California recently cut down a grove of trees that had been planted to commemorate the alumni who died in The Great War. And in all the debate and controversy and protests about cutting down these trees, no one even mentioned that. Even the Wikipedia article doesn’t mention it. So much for remembering those that fell in the Great War: go off to foreign land, die for your country, have a tree planted in your memory…and less than a century later they cut it down to build a sports complex. Some remembrance.
In any event, this isn’t an article about honouring Veterans, at least not in the traditional way. The best way to honour our veterans is to make sure their children and children’s children don’t become veterans. And to do that is to remember that ultimately there is nothing glorious about war, War is grown men murdering each other en mass in despicable ways. War is possibly the most shameful thing humans do that separate us from the beasts. War is a terrible sick cancer in our collective souls. Those who promote war and urge war are the sickest of them all, especially those who tell us we have “no choice.” Free will and making choices are one of the best things about being human, there is always a choice.
I say let us remember and honour our past and future veterans by choosing war last, not first.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, and in any event I strongly suspect it is an image in the public domain, the photographer who took it is long in his grave. It’s a photograpgh of a French trench during the war, and is not a staged image. There was no need to stage horrible images in World War One, there were more than enough real ones to be had. God rest the souls of all who died in that most terrible of wars and all wars.)