Back to the Front
When one of the late twentieth century’s most belligerent nations unveiled to the world its proposal for an imprudent war in the near east there was one prominent nation who vehemently opposed it. The belligerent nation’s reprobate politicians were so distressed by the rebuff that they sought to remove the dissident nation’s name from their lexicon. The supposed statesmen went so far as to suggest that their nations most well know food be renamed in order to demonstrate their displeasure. As most Americans would remember French fries were to be renamed freedom fries. In retrospect it is easy to understand why France had reservations about the Americans’ proposed expedition, but at the time the rhetoric was quite effective and yet the French firmly opposed the adventure.
After taking a trip, primarily in France, along the Western front of the Great War it becomes easier to understand why they would have reservations about instigating a war. As Stephen O’Shea said, “A French hamlet might not have a water tower, a baker, or even a store, but it will always have a list of the dead chiseled in stone.” It is conceivable that if America had more lists of the dead chiseled in stone it might be less militaristic. A nation that retains the scars of a terrible mechanized war that occurred nearly one hundred years ago has good reason to pause before embarking upon another conflict. An attentive walk along the Western Front, even a figurative one, should be prerequisite to embarking upon modern mechanized war.
O’Shea might argue against “monuments to massacres” that allow national leaders to “avoid the question of responsibility by implying that such a regrettable calamity occurred independently of human agency”. However, besides for the fact that his book is also a type of memorial to the atrocities, monuments are one of the ways in which we can mark historical events and preserve their memory. In reality the cratered landscape along the Western Front is in itself a type of testament to the war that occurred there, though it could likely be seen as naturally occurring without the man made markers. The memory of the participants fades relatively quickly, and indeed there are no remaining survivors of the Great War, so the legacy of such important historic events should be marked in a way that future generations can be reminded of their ancestors’ follies. Books are extremely valuable, but they have to be discovered and read in libraries that are often removed from the scene of the crime. A monument is a concrete reminder of history.
If war monuments were required to be installed in between episodes of fighting then maybe incompetent leaders like Doulas Haig would not have been able to embark upon misadventures like The Third Battle of Ypres near the village of Passchendaele. Three years of death through trench warfare had seemingly taught Haig nothing. He felt that for him this time would be different, he would be able to break through the line and make is way to the sea. Maybe if the people back home were forced to send a monument to the front for each failed battle then they would have prevented Haig from leading their compatriots to slaughter. More than a million men had already died through similar tactics at Verdun and Somme, yet Haig was not dissuaded. Unfortunately, the blood of nearly a quarter million men could not secure glory for Haig.
“War, French Premier Georges Clemenceau is supposed to have said in the wake of a battlefield debacle, is too important a matter to be left to the generals” National leaders could also learn from the Great War. Though direct causality was not evident, the massive suffering by the commoners ultimately resulted in the fall of many great aristocracies. The Hohenzollerns and the Hapsburg fell. The Romanov dynasty and czardom was replace with Soviet Communism. Wars are difficult to avoid once mobilization has commenced. Leaders should take time to reflect upon their intentions prior to getting the industrial complex in motion, lest the war consume its progenitors.
Most importantly, the common people could stand to learn a lot from wars such as WWI. A walk along the Western Front could reveal the cost that was paid by average people. For example, the German Wandervogel youths that were sent as a last ditch effort to defeat the British early on were sacrificed for no apparent reason. These boys were somehow convinced that their purity would protect them, of course reality came in the form of lead bullets. Another attack in Artois by the British was so ill conceived, the soldiers were marched directly into machine gun fire, that the Germans were disgusted enough by the slaughter to declare a cease fire. No amount of purity or “Turpin Powder” could have saved these people, there only chance was common sense and historical perspective. If the people understood at the time how incompetent their leadership was they may have been inclined to cut their losses much sooner. If only the people could have seen at the time how many monuments they would be required to build.
It may be true that, “The First World War can be said to have ushered in the industrialization of the lie,” the common people that were dying by the millions seem to have went along with the war longer than expected. One would hope that they would have interceded had they know the truth about the death and destruction. Furthermore, the leaders themselves may have fallen for the lies. There are few other logical explanations for the senseless extermination of men since in the end many of the elites lost their station.
Lies and ignorance of history serve no one in the end, all of humanity is worse off. The memory of past wars can be sufficient to deter future ones, and it is a shame that the horrors of the first World War were so quickly lost to history. The fratricide of men at the hands incompetent leaders and savagery of trench warfare were overshadowed by the barbarism of anti-Semitism and the inhumanity of the atom bomb. A reflective walk along the Western Front could could serve humanity well.
Originally written September 2, 2010