As today is Veteran's Day, which is known in the civilized world (where they have universal health care like socialist Canada) as Armistice Day. It was founded in 1919 and marked by a minute of silence at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the moment when in 1918 World War One went silent. In the Commonwealth of English Speaking Nations it is traditional to wear red paper poppies to commemorate the day by remembering the poppy fields of Flanders where the slaughter of the Western Front took place. The poppies were sold to raise money for veterans causes and wearing the poppy was a point of pride in November when I was a child. We remembered.
Nowadays, almost a century after it began most people have forgotten why we get the day off today, but a bunch of generals decided the eleventh of the eleventh etc.. was the proper moment to end the endless slaughter of the war to end all wars. Then they all went to Versailles and signed the official paperwork punishing the Germans for starting it and thus laying the groundwork that would lead inevitably to World War Two, fifty million dead and wounded and more endless destruction and then the nuclear bomb and it's sole use as an instrument of war.
World War One was a horror beyond anything we can imagine. Men stood in mud and water up to their waists, ice and snow in winter, and shot each other. Post traumatic stress disorder wasn't known and men who lost their heads were labeled cowards and tied to a post between the trenches to die at random. Deserters were shot, the wounded had no penicillin, opiates were in short supply and field hospitals resembled butcher shops. Pensions for survivors were unheard of and a whole generation of women missed out on marriage and families. There weren't enough men to go round in peacetime.
From time to time the Generals organized attacks and the men in the trenches went "over the top" and slogged through barbed wire, mud or dust and walked into machine gun fire from the opposing trenches. They died in droves and no one served just one tour of duty. You volunteered or were conscripted and you served until the war ended or you died. This massacre went on for four years.
This endless slaughter produced some amazing art, great stories and later movies by the ton. From the German side you can read or see the immense classic called All Quiet on the Western Front, or a lesser known book which amazed me years ago and is available on Kindle by Walter Bloem, Advance from Mons which tells how the Germans felt as they advanced on Paris in 1914. I enjoy the sarcastic humor of Derek Robinson's novels of the air war on the British side but if you think I am a curmudgeon they may be too much for you.
War poetry is the best. It conveys the utter awfulness and despair of thinking men caught up in a disaster they cannot escape and which they are forced to participate in with all their strength to hold on to life. People like Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke among others. My favorite anthology of World War One poems is not on Kindle. Poems of the First World War: Never Such Innocence (Everyman): Martin Stephen: 9780460873505: Amazon.com: Books You may reasonably wonder why on Veterans Day I think back to a war four generations old and almost forgotten, God knows we've had plenty since. On the first day of the first battle of the Somme in 1916 sixty thousand British troops were killed and wounded. That was the first day of a battle that lasted 141 days, and there were two more battles later in the war over that same ground. Troops were gassed, drowned, blown up and died in ferocious hand to hand fighting. They came home and never did they put bumper stickers on their model Ts "I survived the First Battle of the Somme" or "My son sailed at Jutland." They did the fighting and lived modest lives thereafter. They deserve to be remembered after all this time. They died for freedom and never even asked for a pension for their wounds. If you want to read modern poetry in the same vein you should read Amazon.com: Here, Bullet eBook: Brian Turner: Kindle Store. Here Bullet is profound in the tradition of the War Poets and it's written by an Afghan War veteran with an amazing way with words.
The man who was arguably the greatest of the War Poets died five days before the Armistice, shot down by a machine gun as his company crossed the Sambre Canal. Everyone knew peace was coming and the minute when the fighting was to stop but they didn't stop fighting until that exact eleventh hour...Wilfred Owen wasn't the last to die, that "honor" went to George Lawrence Price a Canadian soldier shot and killed in Belgium at 10:58, two minutes before all guns were laid down for the last time. However to Owen goes the poetry honor while Price's death is marked with a plaque in Belgium. Of all Owen's poems I like this one best to honor all those for whom today is named, before and after the war to end all wars.
Apologia Pro Poemate Meo - In Defence of my Poems, by Wilfred Owen.
"I, too, saw God through mud -
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.
Merry it was to laugh there -
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.
I, too, have dropped off fear -
Behind the barrage, dead as my platoon,
And sailed my spirit surging, light and clear
Past the entanglement where hopes lay strewn;
And witnessed exultation -
Faces that used to curse me, scowl for scowl,
Shine and lift up with passion of oblation,
Seraphic for an hour; though they were foul.
I have made fellowships -
Untold of happy lovers in old song.
For love is not the binding of fair lips
With the soft silk of eyes that look and long,
By Joy, whose ribbon slips, -
But wound with war's hard wire whose stakes are strong;
Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips;
Knit in the welding of the rifle-thong.
I have perceived much beauty
In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
Heard music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.
Nevertheless, except you share
With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,
Whose world is but the trembling of a flare,
And heaven but as the highway for a shell,
You shall not hear their mirth:
You shall not come to think them well content
By any jest of mine. These men are worth
Your tears: You are not worth their merriment."