One hundred years ago today, the armistice silenced the combatants’ guns, ending the Great War after four years of unprecedented slaughter. In the Battle of the Somme, for example, between the French and the British on one side, and the Germans on the other, three million soldiers took part, and one million were killed or wounded. One million casualties, over the course of a few months in 1916. The scale is incomprehensible, even a century later. Imagine what it was like for Europeans to absorb it at the time.
Earlier this year, I was the guest of Thierry and Emmanuelle François, a farm family living in Picardy. Not being sure how far they were from where the front lines had been, I asked if it was too far to go have a look. Not at all, they said — in fact, the front ran through our land.
They weren’t exaggerating. Notice this photo I took of the scar in the forest on the François property. This was once a trench:
They both told me stories about what the war had been like for the people of their rural region. Thierry mentioned an officer who came home on leave, and was confused because he couldn’t find his family’s manor home. It had been reduced to rubble, and the forested area around it so devastated by bombs and artillery that the man who was raised on that property recognized nothing.
The land around the Somme is so tranquil now, and still quite rural. It is all but impossible to hold the thought in one’s mind that a place like this was once hell on earth. On this journey, Emmanuelle and I visited the cathedral at Amiens, and prayed for peace.
This morning I’ve been looking over the few relics I have of the war. As I’ve said many times here, my great-great-great aunts Hilda and Lois Simmons were Red Cross nurses during the war, stationed at the canteen at Dijon.
I cannot say enough about those brave women. Born in the 1890s in rural Louisiana, they joined the war effort as Red Cross volunteers. Their stories about their time in France, told to me as a very small boy visiting them in their cabin at the end of a pecan orchard, are among the most vivid and formative of my life. I have no doubt that my love of France, and of Europe, comes from these tales.
Hilda loved to doodle. Here’s her fantasia of a doughboy’s dreams:
They brought home this German “pickelhaube” helmet, which someone had picked up on the battlefield and gave to them. It’s shockingly small. The soldier on whose head this helmet sat must have been little more than a boy:
The old ladies gave to me a French and German phrasebook that had been given to them in 1917, when they deployed with the Red Cross:
As a small boy — not even five years old — I would do my best to pronounce the words and phrases I found there. I had no way to conceive of the horror that had brought this little book into existence, and to which my dear old aunts had been witness. Naturally they shielded me from the worst parts of it. To my ears, it was all a grand adventure. That time Aunt Lois drew a ladle of soup from the kettle for the soldiers, and saw a rabbit head looking up at her, and fainted. That time the hungry soldiers in the canteen rioted, and Aunt Hilda stood on a counter wielding a cast iron skillet, and brained a tall Russian. The night Gen. Pershing showed up unannounced, and asked for tea, but nobody could find the key to the pantry, so Lois strained the general’s tea through her petticoat.
The aunts were long dead by the time I was old enough to understand what the Great War had been about. I missed my opportunity to talk to them about it.
I have long believed that the Holocaust was the most important event of the 20th century, because it revealed that even technically advanced, culturally sophisticated societies could revert to the most barbaric behavior imaginable — and indeed use that technical advancement to intensify and broaden that barbarism. I’ve come to believe that World War I makes that same point. To read things from the end of the 19th century and the turn of the 20th, and to acquaint oneself with the optimism people of that era had about what the advance of science, industry, and democracy was going to accomplish — well, it’s to face how blind people can be to man’s capacity for savagery. In 1914, the great powers of the West committed collective suicide; the second act of the blood-drenched drama would come in 1939. The post-1945 era has been a long dénouement; it’s not clear if the third act will have been a resurrection, or a long, lavish funeral.
Aunt Hilda told me once that she was on the Champs-Élysées in Paris when the armistice was announced. A joyful Frenchman, a perfect stranger, grabbed her and kissed her, right on the lips. As a little boy, I thought that was delightful. Now I think about what it must have meant to those weary men and women who endured those four years of mass murder, and survived, and that kiss carries with it so much meaning. It says, “My darling, we lived! We are going to live!”
Twenty million soldiers and civilians died in the war. Twenty-one million were wounded. May their memory be eternal.
Do any of of you readers have World War I stories to tell? Things you heard from your ancestors? Things you’ve seen or experienced on the battlefields there? Please share your thoughts and memories, and the stories of your family members who served, or who suffered.