take the men & the horses away
Photo: artwork by the German expressionist Willy Jaeckel
“World War I was the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken
place on earth. Any writer who said otherwise lied, So the writers either wrote propaganda,
shut up, or fought.” Ernest Hemingway.
Photo: one of the many many war memorials I passed on the route.
Without fail, the path through every French village passes a war memorial. Often it was a large solid edifice, depicting a WWI soldier or helmet. It was trying to depict honour and valour while declaring infinite human cruelty.
The monuments had simple tablets on which were inscribed the names of the dead. For every one plaque dedicated to WWII, there seemed to be three dedicated to WWI. Some of the bigger towns had half a dozen such plates. I would have thought the names would be in alphabetical order but no, even in death the General is more important than the Poilu (common frontline soldier).
Photo: another one of the many many war memorials I passed on the route.
I never failed to pause at these confusingly heroic but heartbreaking monuments.
Each nation has its tragedy. The Somme, Passchendaele, Gallipoli, Vimy Ridge, Belleau Wood, Tannenberg. All horrific slaughters for the British, ANZACS, Canadians, Americans, Russians, and of course the Germans.
For the French, WWI was going to be mostly fought on their soil. This added a sense of national pride, at first, and later desperation. It added another layer of suffering to the the unheard of Battle of the Frontiers, 27,000 (dead). The First Battle of the Marne, 80,000, and the longest battle of the war, Verdun. French 162,000 and German 143,000
The French commander went to war dreaming of Napoleonic wars and the common soldier walked into machine guns and barbed wire.
Verdun was possibly the most horrific. The strategic goal was to engage the French in a “war of attrition” or as the German commander put it “bleed France white”. They chose Verdun they knew France would fight desperately to defend this strategically vital fortress town. For almost a year the two armies went through the meat mincer, for absolutely no gain, either way.
By the end of the war the French had mobilised 8,100,000 soldiers and as a direct result of combat, 1,150,000 died or missing, never identified. Add to this the number who later died of wounds or in prisoner of war camps, plus the civilian population (excluding the Spanish Flu) and 4.3% of the French population died in this war*, for what?
Whenever I passed one of these monuments, I never felt anything except for the most profound sense of anger at the waste and futility. There was nothing heroic or courageous about these blocks of stone. They are a reminder that those in power will not flinch from spilling my blood to defend their way of life.
Lest we forget ...
WWI, the war to end all wars …
Except for the over 800 wars and conflicts since 1918
*Compared to 1.7% British or 3.4% German