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Remembering Armistice Day: A Day of Conscience

remembrance_day___poppy_day_by_daliscar-1

“Tomorrow is our day of conscience. For although it is a monument to victory, it is also a symbol of failure. Just as it honors the dead, so must it humble the living. Armistice Day is a constant reminder that we won a war and lost a peace…” General Omar Bradley November 10th 1948, Boston Massachusetts. 

It was the “War to End All War” or so thought President Woodrow Wilson and other American idealists. However that war to end all wars birthed a series of wars which made the losses of the First World War fade into insignificance as wars of ideology replaced wars for the preservation of the state.

In the First World War there were over 22 million casualties including over 5 million dead of which over 116,000 were Americans. President Woodrow Wilson established what we know now as Veteran’s Day as Armistice Day in November 1919, a year after the guns went silent.

Wilson wrote: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…

That initial proclamation was followed nearly 40 years later by one of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower signed into law what we now know as Veteran’s Day in 1954. In a sense I wish we had two holidays, one for Veterans from all wars in general and this one which we should never forget. It seems that in combining them we have lost some of the sacredness of the original. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.” I will remember all who served this weekend but I will not forget why we do so.

All that being said for many in the United States and Western Europe the experience of  or even the thoughts of such a bloodletting is unimaginable. Yet to those of us who have gone to war and studied past wars the end result is not so distant. It is a part of our lives even today.

This weekend marks the 95th anniversary of the end in World War One.  For the United States the cost in the short time that its forces went into action and the armistice it was costly, though not nearly as costly as it was for the nations of Europe. From the time United States forces went into action in 1917 116,516 Americans were killed, 204,002 wounded, and 4,500 missing; 7.1% of the force of 4,355,000 the nation mobilized for war. (PBS the Great War UNC TV http://www.pbs.org/greatwar/resources/casdeath_pop.html)

However our costs pale in comparison with the European nations who had for over four years bled themselves dry.  If one wonders why Europeans seem to have so little desire for involvement in war one only needs to see how the concentrated killing of the First World War decimated the best and brightest of that generation. Out of nearly 8.5 million Frenchmen mobilized lost 1,357,000 killed, 4,266,000 wounded and 537,000 missing, 6,160,000 casualties or 73.3% of its forces. Other nations has similar casualty figures.

The human costs were horrifying. In all over over 65 million men served under arms in the war. Over 8.5 million were killed, over 21 million wounded, 7.75 million missing or prisoners or almost 37.5 million casualties. That total would be roughly equivalent to every citizen of the 30 largest American cities being killed, wounded or missing.

Much of Europe was devastated, mass numbers of refugees the dissolution of previously stable empires, civil wars, border conflicts between new states with deep seated ethnic hatreds, economic disasters and the rise of totalitarian regimes which spawned another even more costly world war and a 40 year cold war. The bitter results of the First World War are still felt today as conflicts in the Middle East in part fueled by the decisions of Britain and France at the end of the war rage on.

The epic war poem In Flanders Fields written by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrea symbolizes the cost of that war and the feelings of the warriors who endured its hell.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Yes there are always consequences to actions. This weekend as we remember what we now call Veteran’s Day, or Remembrance Day in Britain let us not forget that the genus of these holidays was the blood shed by so many in places like Verdun, Gallipoli, Caporetto, Passchendaele, the Marne, the Argonne, Tannenberg, Galicia and on Flanders Fields.

flanders field

President John F Kennedy said: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

In the hope of peace and an end to war.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The War to End All Wars….and a Peace to end all Peace

It was the War to end all war

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the guns fell silent across Western Europe and the war which had killed 16 million soldiers, sailors and civilians and wounded another 21 million more came to an end. It had begun as a conflict in the Balkans which rapidly drew in all of Europe’s major powers.  The central focus of the war was the Western Front where the armies of Germany battled those of Britain, France, Belgium and later the United States.  Battles with names such as the Marne, Passchendaele, the Somme, Verdun, Ypres, Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood, Vimy Ridge, Cambrai, the Aisne, represented the pinnacle of killing as soldiers battled in the mud of massive trench systems and Generals sacrificing thousands of men in a day for the gain of a few hundred yards of territory throwing them against mountains of barbed wire, landmines, well emplaced machine gun nests and mortars. Massed batteries of artillery tore men to shreds leaving many men so pulverized that they would ever be identified.  Poison gas both choking agents and the long lasting mustard gas added to the hell that was the war in the West.

During the war the war Imperial Russia had fallen to a Communist revolt and surrendered, the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell in October of 1918 and even the Allies had faced near calamity on the home front. In 1917 the French Army mutinied after years of futility with only Marshal Petain the hero of Verdun able to quell it.

The men who drafted the Peace to end all Peace: Clemenceau, Wilson, Lloyd George

Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated his throne on November 9th amid a revolution at home which tore the country apart.  The new German Government accepted an armistice in the belief that the Allies would honor President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points.  Instead they were subjected to humiliation and starvation as the Allies refused to end their blockade of Germany until the Peace Treaty was signed. Hundreds of thousands more Germans died as a result of starvation and disease as their cities were wracked by violence as order collapsed.  It was the Socialist government which had inherited the country that had to fight the Communists in the streets allying themselves with the Army High Command to form Freikorps from units and individual soldiers under commanders willing to fight.

Soviet style revolution in Germany 1918-1919

In France at the Palace of Versailles the Allies led by the British and French brushed aside Wilson’s attempt at a just peace and placed draconian sanctions on the new German Republic which had no choice but to accept the surrender terms dictated by the Treaty of Versailles. The Army was to be reduced to 100,000 men with no heavy weapons, the Navy to a token force of obsolete ships, the air force disbanded.  Massive war reparations were imposed which were impossible for the Germans to fulfill and which were only paid off this year.  The final ignominy was the fact that the Germans were forced to bear the sole responsibility for the war. The German economy collapsed in the aftermath, France occupied key German industrial areas in the Saar and Ruhr and the nation fell into more disorder as the Deutschmark lost all of its value as hyperinflation made the money worthless.

Freikorps helped restore order when the Army dissolved

Eventually order returned to Germany with a brief period of relative prosperity which lasted until the world-wide Great Depression which through Germany back into chaos. Government after government was formed and dissolved and the last Chancellors of the Republic were forced to rule under the emergency conditions of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution.  Eventually extremists on the left and the right brought further chaos as the eventually leading President Hindenburg to appoint the Leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) or NSDAP as Chancellor.  We know the rest of the story. A World War that killed far more than the first 22-25 million military and 62-78 million civilians, a war of extermination on the Eastern Front, the Holocaust, and fearful weapons which ushered in the Atomic and Nuclear age.  Europe was shattered, Britain’s wealth drained and empire unsustainable, France divided and impoverished and other nations in political or economic crisis with the Soviets controlling Eastern Europe behind an Iron Curtain.

Cold War

In Europe and Asia a “Cold War” between the Soviet Communists and the West took the place of the previous war.  The United States would fight wars in Korea and Vietnam while the Soviets would rule with an iron fist in Eastern Europe and at the height of the Cold War invaded Afghanistan.  The wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan caused crisis in both the United States and the Soviet Union and Afghanistan helped mark the end of Soviet power and the end of the Soviet Union.

Around the world colonial empires fell through either revolts of colonized people or the abdication of empire by nations exhausted and economically broken by war. The many of the newly free “nations” were artificial and as a result experienced their own civil, tribal and religious conflicts the effects of which are still felt.  The end of the Cold war brought more change and for a time there was a period of American superiority but wars engulfed the Middle East as Iraq attacked its neighbors and was defeated in the Gulf War.  However the effects of that war were felt as Moslem extremists took power in Afghanistan and others including the Yemeni born Saudi Osama Bin Laden began a campaign of terror to drive the United States out of the Middle East that culminated in the attacks of September 11th 2001 and now the war that seems to have no end.

And it was the War to end all war and a peace that ended all hope of peace….God help us as it is unlikely that this war will end anytime soon for us or our allies even if we withdraw from Afghanistan.  Our enemies are too beholden to their ideology to stop their attacks until they win or are destroyed, the war will continue and God only knows how many soldiers and civilians will die in the coming years over 90 years after the War to end all War ended and the Peace to end all Peace began.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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