On Sunday, the world will stand in silence to remember the 100th anniversary of World War I’s conclusion.
While that war cost 116,000 American lives compared to the more than 400,000 who gave their lives in World War II, it was defined by far greater human losses among our European allies. Losing more than 1.1 million young men, the British military suffered losses nearly three times higher in World War I than in World War II. French comparative losses were six times higher in World War I. Yet the great misery of the 1914-1918 war, which America joined in 1917, was not simply its losses. It was that those losses came without sustained battlefield gains, and in conditions of immense hardship.
A central hardship was the environments that defined World War I. Crowded into often poorly constructed trenches and surrounded by desolate open fields, soldiers lived in an almost dystopian world. When the rain came to the trenches, so came flooding, rats, and disease.
But as terrible as these conditions were, the battles were worse. In many ways the great tragedy of the so-called “Great War” was its binding of traditional, unoriginal imperial generalship to modern warfare. Unwilling or unable to employ new strategies and tactics that could outmaneuver massed artillery and static defense lines, generals sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to unnecessary deaths. It says much about this war that when the guns finally fell silent on November 11, 1918, the allies were still largely in a defensive posture.
Again, however, the human cost of the war remains its primary marker. While the poems of soldiers such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are often remembered for their accounts of the war, battlefield tales also speak volumes. In his book, Somme: Into the Breach, Hugh Sebag-Montefiore documents how entire battalions were wiped out in the course of a few minutes of battles. Sebag-Montefiore documents the witness accounts of this human abattoir. One account records a battle in which “[t]here were more corpses than [living] men. But there were worse sights than corpses. Limbs and [legless and armless] trunks, here and there a detached head, forming splashes of red against the green leaves and as in advertisement of the horror of our way of life and death and of our crucifixion of youth, one tree held in its branches a leg with its of flesh hanging down over a spray of leaf.”
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