The End of World War One
Tomorrow at 11am will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war.
Historians remind us that the war was often fought with 19th-century tactics and 20th-century weapons meaning that troops were endlessly slaughtered by automatic machine gun fire or pulverized by long range artillery barrages, not to mention the use of poison gas on the battlefield.
Deaths counts were both massive and astonishing.
On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, there were 19,240 soldiers killed in action, most of them before lunch, another 36,000 were wounded or missing.
Trench warfare, which was the de facto motif for much of the war, meant that opposing armies were locked in stationary positions for months, even years on end.
It’s easy to forget what that meant: excruciating and appalling living conditions.
Troops would often spend a week in a reserve position some distance behind the front trenches before then being rotated into relieve those on the point; those troops would then be sent to the rear for rest, refit and recuperation.
Front line trenches were horrendous: rat infested, often flooded with water from rains and usually collapsing under their own weight.
Soldiers walked (and lived) in several feet of water, they ate, slept and shat in the same confined space and lived in constant fear of sniper fire if they peered over the lip of the trench.
But it gets much, much, worse.
Tactical offensives by either side could mean that front line, and some second line trenches would change hands and that the terrain in between was littered with corpses which would often be buried in situ by burial parties during intermittent cease fires.
Renewed fighting, the repeated movement of trench lines and the damage from artillery rounds meant that previously buried corpses were constantly being unearthed, often having to be reburied multiple times, until sometimes the troops simply gave up.
Arms and legs of the dead might extend bizarrely above the ground or in a trench until they were removed or devoured by the millions of rats.
Getting to the trenches was no picnic either.
Several miles could separate the relative safety of the rear from the front.
Troop move-ups occurred at night, under pitch black conditions, so as to avoid sniper and shell fire.
Soldiers were weighed down with personal and battle gear, as well as ammunition and rations.
They traversed a treeless no-man’s land, riven with abandoned trenches, shell craters and gullies.
The ground was often slippery with mud and the path might be covered with duck boards to provide some semblance of a walkable surface.
Soldiers, unable to see, literally kept “in touch” in order to avoid a terrible fate: hundreds of them slipped and fell into watery ditches, drowning under the weight of their gear, not even missed until a later roll call.
It is against the backdrop of their suffering that President Trump, as Commander-in-Chief, declines to visit the American Cemetery at Aisne-Marne while on his retreat to France.
The White House and press reports that, “An American delegation led by Chief of Staff General John Kelly and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford will attend on their behalf.”
If they can get there, so can he.
Yes, inconvenience and even some tolerable risk might be borne but a crucial duty would be fulfilled: to honor their sacrifice at this moment in history.
As Trump once again takes a pass it is nothing more than another example of a man we now know so well, a man utterly unfit for the position he holds.
As if more examples were needed.