The War to End All Wars
The usual barrage of war films has filled television screens today – Veterans Day – which for many years was known as Armistice Day – in remembrance of that November 11 when an armistice was signed ending the first World War.
For many years, the American Legion, the organization which was begun by the veterans of the American Expeditionary Force, would distribute artificial red poppies – for many a reminder of the killing field in Flanders immortalized by Joyce Kilmer.
For students of history, the daunting facts are that the peace which had soldiers marching down the Champs Ellysses laid the foundation for the Second World War. Few of the thousands who would march in Veterans Day parades, and clog the cemeteries where little flags honored the fallen – I used to play Taps at those ceremonies – realized that the victories on the battlefield were negated in large part by the Treat of Versailles and other political decisions.
One of the most far-reaching decisions was the remapping of the Middle East, including the creation of Iraq. Behind the screens of Versailles, British Petroleum and France’s national petroleum company claimed control of the oil fields of Mesopotamia, and ensured their access to the oil fields of Saudia Arabia and other Middle Eastern territories.
Ironically, their quest continues unabated. The British and French governments, who were the principal responders in Iraq, now claim that their assistance gives them first rights to exploit Libya’s oil.
The First World War, begun in August 1914, finally moved to a conclusion after the United States entered the war. Much of that was fought in France and Belgium, notably in trenches. Armies would fight for patches of ground the length of football fields, over and over. Generals, far removed for the front lines, would order mass charges; one British general sent 50,000 men to their deaths in the Somme.
There were brief occasions when civility made its way onto the battle field. At Christmas, men of all nations would join in singing Christmas carols. Brief interludes allowed recovery of wounded and the dead, even the chopping of firewood. Resupply was a constant challenge for all armies, even just feeding the combatants.
One of my favorite stories concerns a decision made by General John J “Blackjack” Pershing. One a trip to the front, Pershing was confronted by a young corporal – a soldier did not address a general officer then or now without permission, and to do so could lead to a court martial. Food was served for one American unit at a central point, and every soldier would fall into line, all along the miles of trenches, and those at the end might wait two or three hours to reach the front of the line – and, if there was any food left, it was cold. This soldier bravely suggested that food should be served at several points, and men should be fed in small units, thus ensuring hot meals and shorter down-time. Pershing agreed.
The brash young soldier was Corporal Francis X. Hesse.