The 100th Anniversary of the End of WWI

Today marks 100 years since the end of World War I, so this morning over coffee I reflected on what small connections I personally have to the great war and what books have educated me on it.

My maternal grandfather, Elmer Dalton Warren, was in the Great War. He was 82 years old when he died in 1973 and I was only 7, and so I don’t recall learning anything about his experiences during the war. My dad told me “Poppy” served in the U.S. Navy during WWI, assigned to a “submarine chaser.” My guess is Poppy spent his war years in the Atlantic, hunting German U-boats.

I also knew another gentleman, Sebastian Sanchez, who was like an uncle to me growing up, who’d served in WWI. I believe he served in the British Army, though I’m not sure. He died in the mid 1980s when I was around 16 years old. On his death bed he gave me his WWI rifle bayonet, which was really more like a small sword. I can remember asking him if he’d ever used it, though I can’t recall what he said in reply.

Educationally speaking, my views of WWI have mostly come from reading books like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, John Keegan’s history of The First World War, Robert Grave’s incredible memoir Good-bye to All That, and a vast trove of magazine articles and TV documentaries that I’ve read and watched over the years.

My views of WWI are basically summed up in John Keegan’s opening paragraph to his masterful work, The First World War:

The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the cause of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots.

And, of course, for me, no reflection on the First World War can leave out my reading of Alex Danchev’s incredibly well done biography of B.H. Lindell Hart. Lindell Hart was a British army infantry officer during the First World War, and learned firsthand the futility of WWI battlefield strategies. It was Lindell Hart’s strategic insights, formulated after WWI, that would, oddly enough, be quickly adopted by the German army and utilized to make quick work of the French and British armies on the battlefields of Europe during WWII.

One of the stories that’s stayed with me from reading Danchev’s biography of Lindall Hart, is the one about the 9th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Lindall Hart was an officer in the Battalion…one of the lucky ones to survive. There is no doubt that by eve of the Battle of the Somme, British officers and soldiers were well aware of the gruesome carnage and death that awaited those going “Over the top.” And yet, the futility and fear would not outweigh the sense of honor and duty in the face of it all by the officers of the 9th.

On the evening before the Battle, the officers of the 9th all met one last time before being deployed to the trenches the next morning. Most of them certainly knew or felt that many of their fellow officers wouldn’t survive the coming battle. The commanding officer of the Battalion, Lt. Colonel Lynch, was not popular with the officers because it was believed he’d shown favoritism with promotions. So there was some bad blood between the officers. And even though they were going into battle and there was a good chance this was the last time some of them would ever see each other again, honor and sincerity would not be sacrificed for the sake of expediency. Captain Haswell would find a way to preserve his personal integrity while summoning all to reflect on their shared duty—and fate—that lay ahead.

At about 6pm on June 28 all officers received a summons to go to Battalion HQ for a final drink before going into action. We assembled, glasses were put into our hands, drinks were passed round and we drank quietly to one another – everyone was naturally feeling strained. The Adjutant and Second-in-command were away on some course, so the Acting Adjutant, Keay, was in charge. Lynch came into the room and was given a glass. Keay went up to Haswell, the senior Captain, and said quietly to him,

‘I think you should propose the CO’s health!’

‘I’m damned if I will’, said Haswell ‘I don’t wish him good health and am not prepared to be insincere on this occasion.’

‘You must’, said Keay.

‘I won’t.’, said Haswell.

For a few moments they argued, and then Haswell stepped forward and raising his glass said:

‘Gentlemen, I give you the toast of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and in particular the 9 Battalion of the Regiment’ – a slight pause – ‘Gentleman, when the barrage lifts.

We emptied our glasses and were silent. Dramatically, Haswell had avoided an unpleasant scene, and the toast has never been forgotten.

Of those present, twenty-four went into action the next day in the attack on Fricourt. Six were in reserve [Lindell Hart was one of them]. Of the twenty-four, twelve were killed, including Lynch and Haswell. Three died of wounds afterwards, eight were wounded, one slightly and only one left untouched.*

Of the 800 British soldiers assigned to the 9th Battalion, 720 were either killed or wounded in the July 1, 1916, attack on Fricourt.

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Officers of 9th Battalion of the KOYLI, La Neuville, Corbie, April 1916.

The Truly Evil Thing is Stimulating Hatred and Dishonesty

The truly evil thing is to act in such a way that peaceful life becomes impossible. War damages the fabric of civilisation not by the destruction it causes (the net effect of a war may even be to increase the productive capacity of the world as a whole), nor even by the slaughter of human beings, but by stimulating hatred and dishonesty. By shooting at your enemy you are not in the deepest sense wronging him. But by hating him, by inventing lies about him and bringing children up to believe them, by clamouring for unjust peace terms which make further wars inevitable, you are striking not at one perishable generation, but at humanity itself.

George Orwell

A Good Deal of Confusion

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Mark Twain at the time of the Civil War

I knew Mark Twain had served briefly in the confederate army when the Civil War broke out in 1861. He served 2 weeks, had enough of “retreating,” so he abandoned the confederate army and headed West (Nevada) with his brother to sit out the war. I had read about Twain’s Civil War service only in secondary material, but recently I finally got around to reading Twain’s own essay on his Civil War experience in a piece he called The Private History of a Campaign that Failed.

I should note, Twain grew up in Missouri, a slave state and largely southern in culture, and was piloting steamboats on the Mississippi River when the war broke out.

After reading Twain’s story, I couldn’t help but post the second paragraph, a model specimen of Twain’s humor and charm as a writer:

Out west there was a good deal of confusion in men’s minds during the first months of the great trouble, a good deal of unsettledness, of leaning first this way then that, and then the other way. It was hard for us to get our bearings. I call to mind an example of this. I was piloting on the Mississippi when the news came that South Carolina had gone out of the Union on the 20th of December, 1860. My pilot mate was a New Yorker. He was strong for the Union; so was I. But he would not listen to me with any patience, my loyalty was smirched, to his eye, because my father had owned slaves. I said in palliation of this dark fact that I had heard my father say, some years before he died, that slavery was a great wrong and he would free the solitary Negro he then owned if he could think it right to give away the property of the family when he was so straitened in means. My mate retorted that a mere impulse was nothing, anyone could pretend to a good impulse, and went on decrying my Unionism and libeling my ancestry. A month later the secession atmosphere had considerably thickened on the Lower Mississippi and I became a rebel; so did he. We were together in New Orleans the 26th of January, when Louisiana went out of the Union. He did his fair share of the rebel shouting but was opposed to letting me do mine. He said I came of bad stock, of a father who had been willing to set slaves free. In the following summer he was piloting a Union gunboat and shouting for the Union again and I was in the Confederate army. I held his note for some borrowed money. He was one of the most upright men I ever knew but he repudiated that note without hesitation because I was a rebel and the son of a man who owned slaves.

The Battle of Gettysburg Began 155 Years Ago Today

July 1, 1863, a 155 years ago today, the Battle of Gettysburg began. The battle would last three days (July 1 – 3). It would be the bloodiest battle of the entire Civil War, with upward estimates of 51,000 casualties between the two armies. It was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy, and from Gettysburg’s blood soaked fields, a nation would seek “a new birth of freedom.”

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Little Round Top (Photo by Jeff Wills, July 2018)

Hitler’s Circle of Evil

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Source: Netflix

I just finished watching a well done docudrama on Netflix called Hitler’s Circle of Evil. I highly recommend it. It’s definitely a good binge watch (10 episodes) for a weekend rainy day—if you like history. (If you don’t have Netflix, you’re in luck. Someone has uploaded the whole series to Youtube.)

I’ve read a lot about Hitler, the Nazis in general, the Holocaust, and, of course, the 2nd World War, but my knowledge of Hitler’s inner circle of power and how they interacted and related to der Führer (German for “The Leader”) was rather thin and incomplete as I enjoyably discovered.

These are just a few, among the many, interesting takeaways I got from the series:

  1. Joseph Goebbels was true believer to the bitter end. I’d read this about him to some degree, but this Netflix series really showed just how critical Goebbels was in building the Nazi party and, more nefariously, in pushing the hatred of the Jews as one of the core beliefs of the Nazis. It was Goebbels who was behind the infamous Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) in 1938, named “from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed.” Kristallnacht marked the first steps toward the Final Solution. Over two nights hundreds of Jews were killed and 30,000 were sent to concentration camps as a result of Kristallnacht. The day following the pogrom Hermann Göring said, “The Jewish problem will reach its solution if, in anytime soon, we will be drawn into war beyond our border—then it is obvious that we will have to manage a final account with the Jews.” While Göring and Himmler would ultimately abandon Hitler at the end, Goebbels remained loyal to the very end. Sadly, I had forgotten, Goebbels had brought his family to Hitler’s bunker and after Hitler committed suicide Goebbels had his wife poison all three of their young children and then he and her took poison pills.
  2. Hermann Göring seem less fanatical and more pragmatic. He didn’t think invading Russia, for example, while the British were still not pacified, a good strategy. Likely thinking of WWI, he didn’t think a two front war was a winnable situation for Germany. But he couldn’t get Hitler to listen. He was angry and confronted Goebbels about Kristallnacht, complaining the violence and destruction bad for the German economy. And “who was going to pay for all the damage” Göring demanded to know from Goebbels. Of course the answer, from Goebbels and agreed to by Hitler, was that the Jews would pay for it.
  3. Albert Speer, who’s memoirs I read many years ago, is one of those characters who doesn’t seem so much a committed Nazis as much as a committed German. He is the young architect who Hitler took under his wing and was ultimately made Minister of Armaments and War Production. It’s really in following Speer’s path that you see one of the most fatal flaws (that surely Speer mentioned in his book but I’d forgotten) in Hitler’s approach to war. Even as the Russian front and Operation Barbarossa began to look grim for Germany, the German Economy was still not in full war mode. Hitler wanted the home-front affected as little as possible by the war. As late as 1942, with German soldiers occupying most of Europe, Britain still in the war and America now a member of the allied forces, and a raging war in Russia, a number of German factories were still producing common household goods instead of war materials for troops in the field. It was Speer and Goebbels who pushed Hitler to approve a plan of “total war.” This plan called for ALL Germans to be directly involved in supporting the war. All factories had to be retooled to produce war materials and even German women (which Hitler resisted at first) needed to be working in those factories in support of the war effort. Of course in Britain and America this was the situation pretty much from the beginning. Germany had been at war since 1939, and here they were three years later just getting around to a total war economy. My theory is success blinded Hitler to the need to transform his economy. His victories had been swift against the allies in the beginning. The tempo of his economy was sufficient for the task up to that point, so he didn’t see a need to transform all his industries and bring the war home. It was Speer who realized this fatal flaw, but by then it was really too late.