Monday, November 11, 2013

Time and Distance...

The American Civil War is viewed differently in the North and the South in large part because most of it happened in the latter. It was a war that Hoosier and Buckeye boys marched away to fight, but it happened right in the front yards of Tennesseans and Virginians. Southerners of my grandparents' generation would have learned about the war from men and women who, as small children, had watched their homes burn, and anybody with a metal detector can still go looking for Minie balls and shell fragments near the historical markers that dot the roadsides.

Similarly, I don't know that we as Americans really get the Great War. Sure, we sent some troops there at the end, but the sheer scale of the thing...

Consider this: During the invasion of Normandy, V Corps suffered ~3,000 casualties total; killed, wounded, and missing. Antietam, the bloodiest single-day battle of the Civil War, saw over 3,500 KIA for Union and Confederate forces, combined.

By comparison, on the opening day of the Somme Offensive the British army took almost 60,000 casualties, over nineteen thousand of whom were killed outright. In the kindermord, the 'Massacre of the Innocents' of the first battle of Ypres, the Germans lost almost 20,000 KIA, a third of them practically children. The bones of more than 130,000 unidentified Frenchmen and their German foes are piled in the Douaumont ossuary.

And this awful corpse-furnace burned in one place for four years as Europe stoked it with the better part, literally, of an entire generation.

It's little wonder that the day on which the guns fell silent on the Western Front is still commemorated.


Cincinnatus said...

In 2007, I toured Ypres(Ieper is the Flemish spelling). The area is basically the world's largest cemetary and I am not even refering to the numerous formal cemetaries. Which are numerous and huge. The land itself is filled with unrecovered human remains. A tour guide pointed to a recent warehouse in an industrial area of town - your typical tipup concrete warehouse - in grading its foundation over 100 remains were found. Its mind-numbing in scale.

Anonymous said...

After the 11 million military deaths came the 25 million deaths from Spanish Influenza.

The US had about 100,000 military deaths, and about 800,000 deaths from the Spanish Influenza. Since the influenza was able to mutate into a lethal strain because of the war, and was able to avoid dying out with the death of the host because of the war, those 800,000 casualties are in some measure also due to the war, making Woodrow Wilson's war the most costly in terms of lives that the US has ever faced, in absolute terms. The modern estimate of 750,000 deaths due to the War of the Great Rebellion is still tops as a percentage of the country's population.

taylor said...

And to think that it took nearly a decade to have as many KIA in Iraq and Afghanistan as happened at Antietam.

I honestly dont think our country could fight an actual full-scale war ever again. We dont have the stomach

Anonymous said...

The Battlefields of Verdun, Ypres all have a peculiar smell. Two chemicals are given off by the soil, cadaverine [NH2(CH2)5 NH2]and putrescine [NH2(CH2)4 NH2], diamines derived from hydrolysis of amino acids like lysine. They are the characteristic smells of rotting human flesh.

Anonymous said...

During my time living the UK, I was always stunned by the sheer number of names on the memorials in every town, in every parish church, the regimental flags hung in every council hall or cathedral.

WWI entirely reshaped the British population, WWII cemented the deal. For two generations the men who were psychologically, culturally, and historically the people who are the volunteer core of the professional military were killed. Never mind the impact on Europe as a whole.

We, as Americans, really don't 'get it' for which I am very thankful. The Civil War is our closest experience, and that frankly is too distant to be more than an emotional/intellectual exercise. It also (despite the Union's best/worst efforts) doesn't come close on the 'remodel the landscape by way of high explosives' scale.

mikee said...

WWI was a demonstration that the military minds of the early 20th century had not absorbed the lessons of the US Civil War.

In terms of weapons technology WWI had faster firing rifles and better artillery than the Union and Confederacy 45 years earlier. WWI Generals still used offensive tactics that had been abandoned by US Grant after Cold Harbor, frontally charging heavily defended positions.

The South was not defeated by frontal assaults into cannon and massed rifle fire. Grant avoided the charge into the guns because it did not work and wasted the lives of his men. He opted for sieges as in Richmond, and Sherman destroyed the Confederate logistics and supplies. The ability of the South to fight was destroyed, while many troops were still willing but had no food, ammo, or footwear.

In WWI that lesson never quite got learned for some reason.

RabidAlien said...

As much history as I read, I've learned one thing: words on a page can NEVER fully convey what its like to actually be there. I've read about Gettysburg, but actually visiting and touring the battlefield was a much more enlightening lesson. WW1 casualty figures simply boggle the mind, WW2 battles are each an individual tragic triumph, Korea was a lesson in being prepared, Vietnam was pure hell and humidity...and the more I read and learn, the greater grows my respect for those who were on the pointy end of the stick.

Anonymous said...

My family is partially from Northern / western France.

The horror of the WWI still pervaded my grandparents generation:

Entire regional regiments effectively getting wiped out (Imagine: Every man 17 to 25 in your county getting killed over 3 months.) Endless war office telegrams month after month. "We regret to inform you."

A prominent local (6 boys + father) family where not one came back home. The telegrams came every 3-4 weeks. The Mother went mad. The 3 sisters never married.

I inherited a copy of the local town book/magazine commemorating the _Local_ dead in 1919. It's not in big type. It's not a thin pamphlet. Page after page.

Paul said...

My grand dad spent WW1 in Russia building the trans Siberian rail way. Then he spent some time in the Philippines. My dad was too young for WW2 but he did get in on Korea, spent it in German training Howitzers. My Uncle on my mothers side was in WWII and then was career navy.

Non of them talked about their service much. My dad is the only one left of that group.

My daughter is currently in the Air Force and her unit will not be forward deployed (B2 support) but we have come a long way in making sure we do not leave people on the battle field.

Today we can remember them all.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, Dan Carlin's most recent Hardcore History podcast is about the genesis of WWI and the early battles in Belgium.

It's worth a listen if you have time (2+ hours).


LCB said...

My grandma on my father's side believed the "South would rise again!". Her father might have, and her grandfather definitley would have, fought in the war.

Some scholars think Montgomery was "timid" with his men in Normandy because of what Britain went through during WW1. Can't blame him if it's so...

And to all you Verterans, thank you!

SPEMack said...

I think the detachment from WWI is because for the Americans, it was over in the space of a year and change.

It is hard to envision the carnage of the Somme when the war, for Americans, can be thumbnailed sketched to
"Blackjack landed, argued with the the French, the 3rd ID held at the Marne, the Marines held at Belleu Wood, and then we kicked but at the Argonne. Oh, and Eddie Rickenbacker."

JustSomeGuy said...

Anon @ 11:47,

I'm not entirely sure where you're coming from, but 'boots on the ground' serve a different function than simple weapons delivery. That function has yet to be duplicated by alternatives, so...not for nought.

Ajdshootist said...

My grandfather lost a brother an uncle and his brother-in-law on the first day of the Somme he later was gassed and lost a cousin,in WW2 he joined the home guard serving as a Sgt,he died in 1943 from pneumonia caused by having a weak chest from being gassed in WW1 and out in the cold and damp at night in the Home guard.

Anonymous said...

"For those who will fight for it, FREEDOM has a flavor the protected shall never know."

L/Cpl Edwin L. Craft

Khe Sanh, RVN 1968

staghounds said...

Again great minds think alike.

Not a lot of laughs.

Will said...

The idiocy of the Generals (hell, most all of the officers) on both sides in WWI is just amazing. Not only did the Europeans not learn anything from the US Civil War (and there were lots of military observers from Europe), they learned nothing during the course of the war, as the only thing that changed was a bit of technology.

I doubt it could happen now. At least in the US forces. Fragging would quickly remove most officers that stupid.

I just read some of Rickenbachers book about flying in that war. One of the astounding bits was his recall of a higher army officer's comment on why they didn't have parachutes in the US forces airplanes (balloon observers did, I think). The officer said they thought the pilots would jump every time they got in a tight spot, and decided that would not be acceptable.
In fact, the majority of pilots were lost due to fire or structural (wing) failure during battle. To me, that sort of mentality would warrant a fragging. Unfortunately, it appears that stupidity was a requirement to rise in the military ranks back then. Hopefully, not so much now.

Able said...

My Grandfather was one of 13 male children. They all volunteered ... only he came back. Repeat and rinse across almost every family across the entire country to see the effects. An entire generation where the majority of men were killed.

It fundamentally changed Britain beyond all recognition. As an example, examining one infinitesimally tiny section of society, the landed gentry - to borrow a quote from Richard Holmes's bio of Winston Churchill:

"Whatever we may say about the old ruling class of Britain, that narrow segment of which Winston himself was so much a part, it went to its death with courage. Thirty-two peerages and 35 baronetcies became extinct in 1914 -20, not all as a result of the war, although some 300 peers or their eldest sons (of 1500 who served) were killed or died as a result of war service. The 1914-15 battlefields of Flanders have some cause to be regarded as the cemetry of the pre-war aristocracy. The gentry were heavily concentrated in the Territorials [volunteer reservists sometimes known as 'weekend soldiers] and, although they were specifically excluded from service abroad, in 1914 the great majority voted to go overseas and in the process suffered dreadful losses: 47 heirs to peerages were killed in action before the end of the year. Double death duties levied when a father and heir died soon after each other crippled many landed estates, and 25% of land in England and Wales changed hands in 1918-21."

As to the Generals, whilst it is almost de rigeur to vilify and lambast the British, 'Lions led by Donkeys', does no one ever consider that the cream of the German High Command also reacted almost identically. Yes, technology had changed 'but' unfortunately not sufficiently to allow any alternative to the slaughter other than capitulation.

Anonymous said...

My great uncle Mr. Willson, served in WW-1 with the 82nd ID. He used to say that the first thing the boys noticed was the SMELL. He said they could smell the front for two days before they got there. He said that digging was a nightmare as there were body's everywhere "It was like digging in a grave yard" He died at 99 never having married---Ray

Tam said...

From a deleted comment:

"No occasion is too sober, no observation too profound..."

...that an entitled Pawmbroker can't try and make it all about Him, Him, Him.

You think that your comments are being deleted for their content, PB, but they're deleted because they're from you, even if I agree with them 100%.

You have been asked politely to leave more than once, and you don't seem to take a hint, so here's another one: Fuck right off and don't leave another word here.

Sebastian said...

I honestly dont think our country could fight an actual full-scale war ever again. We dont have the stomach

I think we don't have the stomach for Empire, even the trappings of Empire, which is what we have now. I think we would have the stomach for war if it was over something important enough.

Comrade Misfit said...

It still amazes me that Gens. Haig, Joffre, Petain and others were not shot.

Borepatch said...

But here in this graveyard it's still No Man's Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who was butchered and damned.

- Liam Clancy, The Green Fields Of France

Yes, it's better remembered on the shores of the Old World.

Anonymous said...

My grandfather also served in WWI. He got out of Lithuania which was a Russian territory at the time just in time to avoid Russian conscription. Came to the USA worked in Penn. as a miner, quit came to Chicago and was drafted. Served in France was mustard gassed and came home to start a family. His male children all served in war time and one of his daughters.

Matthew said...

Hadn't thought of it this way before but in a way our Civil War, for the North anyway, wasn't the same kind of massive bloodletting of an "entire generation", because so much fighting was done by recent immigrants, some right off the boat, and the losses were filled almost immediately by yet more immigrants.

Unlike a quaint English village where all the families had lived there for generations and every loss had historic resonance, in our case some entire towns hadn't been there for more than a couple.

I'd guess the young men of France, Germany, and Britain, et al weren't so easily replaced either, as there was nowhere near the same influx of immigrants -into- Europe as opposed to out of it.

Buzz said...

Uh, Will, all signs point to the situation being WORSE in modernity's PC efforts.
Not just military, but big business, as well.

Joe in PNG said...

Actually, Petain was seen as a general who was concerned about the lives of his men, unlike Foch, Joffre or Nivelle (who kicked off the Mutiny of 1917). But yes on Haig- he should have been kicked out years before.

Anonymous said...

In reading the Historys of the World Wars, it occurred to me that millions were killed by a combination of blind faith, new lethal technology, and monumental lack of imagination ..... the losers, unconvinced they wer in fact beaten, opted for the second go-round, and reduced the imagination deficit, doubled down on the blind faith, and in neither case, gave any thought to the cost to, nor saw any value whatsoever, to the Individual.

Anonymous said...

My Mother's Mother was killed by the Spanish flu. My Grandfather raised her alone, with his mother's help.

It was a different time.


Windy Wilson said...

There have been many who have complained loudly and bitterly about how Germany and France don't fight, that the lesson they learned from WW1 and WW2 was not to fight evil but that fighting was evil. As my mother often said through the 60's, America has no knowledge of war as the Europeans do, our cities have never been bombed. Soldiers have not invaded America (the Civil War is beyond most people's awareness, now). In addition to the human cost there is the fact that in the space of one not that long generation the Germans came through the same patch of woods to kill French soldiers three times. Plus, those wars were not wars of liberation, but wars to satisfy some sociopathic leader's desire to change the lines on the map. Hardly worth the blood of one man let alone so many. No wonder the Europeans have a completely different view of war.

Anonymous said...

I honestly dont think our country could fight an actual full-scale war ever again. We dont have the stomach.

Don't ever underestimate the bloodthirstiness of the leftists. They just need the right target and enough confidence in their ability to win.

I suppose that goes for folks on the right, too, unfortunately.


LCB said...

I believe that right after 9/11 the USA was ready for a full-scale war effort. But Bush didn't ask for it...he just said "We'll show 'em whose boss. Go to the mall and keep shopping!"

OK...that's not what he said, but it's close. :-)

The Old Man said...

World War One spawned the American Legion in 1919. There was a great increase in membership in the AL and the VFW after WW2, Right now we are suffering the diminishing of numbers of the WW2 generation - as well as the demographics of modern war. About 4% of the genpop was a vet of WW2 in 1947. About 1.5% was a Vietnam-era vet. Now we're down to .5% or less in the current wars, due to repeated tours and lesser military size.
Those who have served have been changed in ways that those who didn't can't imagine. Not the "Starship Troopers" franchise-earning-due-to-service, but the same mindset that causes an average of one casualty for every dozen successful rescues in civilian life.
The Romans knew it as well as the Brits and Germans. But when America loses it, we head for the dustheap of history.

Anonymous said...

More British KIA and wounded on the first day of the Somme than there are names on the Vietnam War Memorial in DC. And it took 15 years to rack up that wall of names.

This is a point I made several times to classes back when I used to teach.

Nicholas Darkwater said...

The monument to the graduates of l'Ecole de Saint-Cyr (the French West Point, if you will) who were killed in action would list their names in order of their graduating class (the monument was destroyed by the Germans in World War II). For the Class of 1914, it only had one entry: the Class of 1914.

Kyberz said...

Two excellent reads about WW I

An Accidental Historian Walks The Trenches Of World War I
By: Stephen O'Shea
In the early 1990's he walked the entire 450 mile front. At that time (and even now I would hazard a guess) French farmers were still plowing up tons of ordinance. They would stack it up along the nearest road to be picked up by special teams detailed to do just that

The Live and Let Live System
By: Tony Ashworth
He writes about the (above) unplanned, spontaneous and curious culture that emerged between enemies when they at each others throats during major battles.

For example: We won't shell your latrines if you don't shell ours. We won't start harassing barrages until after breakfast if you do the same. Or in some cases the implied agreement went further, the artillery fire was directed at unoccupied ground.

Ashworth can get a bit "thick" at times, but still worth the time.