The Forgotten War

The trenches of The First World War.

From the first history class you take, your mind is filled with facts about people, dates, conflicts, and resolutions. For many young boys (and girls if they are so inclined) in classrooms, the only aspect of history that holds any interest is war– exciting, adventurous, dangerous war. We have lived in a culture that glorified battle. Even Hemingway was obsessed with the idea of dying gracefully in battle. We find wars interesting because they hold so many aspects to them: good vs. evil, the question of what bravery is, the fronts whether they be Western or home, and the rapid advancement of technology with simultaneous rapid deterioration of social norms. The stakes are high in war, and we eat it up.

Any middle school kid can tell you all about the Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWII, or Vietnam. Hell, they can even probably say a few things about the War of 1812. But almost all American students fail to know anything about the First World War other than that it happened some time before WWII (and even then it is simply a guess regarding the chronology). Which is a shame.

It’s a shame because Americans aren’t being taught about the war that still haunts Europe. The war that created Veteran’s Day (or Armistice Day), killed 11,000,000 soldiers, wounded 21,000,000, and destroyed the lives of countless mothers, fathers, and children around the world. If those numbers weren’t staggering enough, in the first 30 minutes of the Battle of the Somme, 20,000 British men were killed. How did they die? While walking across a ground laden with craters from artillery and bodies of their friends. If they got far enough, they found themselves tangled in barbed wire with the points tearing through their uniforms and flesh. All this was while being shot at by machine gun fire.

I point all of this out to spark an interest in a country that has all too quickly forgotten its own part in the war. It shouldn’t really surprise anyone. After all, the vast majority of Americans never wanted to enter the war in the first place. Hence why, even after Germany sank the Lusitania (a British passenger ship with 128 Americans on board), it was still two years before President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war. However, after the declaration was announced, it was as if someone had flipped a switch causing Americans to launch into a wartime frenzy.

I won’t bore you with a single post about the war in its entirety. No one would want to read that, I don’t want to write it, and it wouldn’t leave me anything to post about WWI later on! Instead I want this to be a quick introduction on some aspects of the war.

While the war has largely been overlooked or forgotten, those who experienced it could never forget. While the last veteran died in 2012, their stories live on in books like The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin. In his work, Rubin journeyed to as many surviving veterans in 2003 as he could, interviewed them, and published his analyses of the discussions. It provides an interesting look at the men themselves who went “Over There” in 1917 and 1918 and their stories are haunting.

One particular story, the one I have found most intriguing thus far, is not that of someone he interviewed, but of Arthur Empey– a man who enlisted with the British army prior to America’s entry because of his frustration with the U.S. with their reluctance to help. I found one of Empey’s stories to be the most gut-wrenching and a symbolic summary of an often overlooked aspect of the war.

The night before the Battle of the Somme (mentioned earlier), Empey and 19 other men were venture across No Man’s Land to the enemy trench, capture a few Germans, and return them to the British line for interrogation.

“Take off your identification disks, strip your uniform of all numerals, insignia, etc., leave your papers with your captains, because I don’t want any of you to be taken alive.”

Those were the instructions from their commander. Additionally, they were not allowed to take their guns. Instead they were told to bring “persuaders” or knuckle knives. Persuaders were two-foot long clubs with steel spikes at the end capable of bashing a man’s head in with a single strike. Knuckle knives were daggers with steel guards over the knuckles similar to brass knuckles. The proper procedure with knuckle knives was to punch the enemy with the steel guard then stab them as they fell to the ground with the eight inch blade. The most compelling aspect of these weapons was their utter brutality in a war of “gentlemen” and “manners.” Truly, this was symbolic of the war itself.

In the blackness of night, the 20 men snuck across No Man’s Land, cutting barbed wire wide enough to move through single-file, until they were ten feet from the German trench. I have no idea how they made it that far undiscovered, but then, just feet away, a dozen German flares lit up the sky and landed behind the men, illuminating their silhouettes.

“Then in front of me the challenge, ‘Halt,’ given in English rang out, and one of the finest things I have ever heard on the western front took place.

From the middle of our line some Tommy answered the challenge with, ‘Aw, go to hell.’”

Empey gets shot through the cheek only an inch from his eye as the Germans open fire, and he rushes to find the hole they had cut in the wire when he comes across a grave sight.

“I came to a limp from which seemed like a bag of oats hanging over the wire. In the dim light I could see that its hands were blackened, and knew it was the body of one of my mates. I put my hand on his head, the top of which had been blown off by a bomb. My fingers sank into the hole. I pulled my hand back full of blood and brains, then I went crazy with fear and horror and rushed along the wire.”

This wasn’t something from a movie. This wasn’t something the author made up in the book. Empey actually thought the limp body of one of his friends was a bag of oats, reached up, and found his hand covered in the blood and brains of his comrade. Sadly, it would be folly to assume this was an uncommon sight.

Empey was shot twice more before he collapsed in a ditch. The next day he would be found by a force of charging Scots and survive the encounter. Unfortunately, 17 of the 20 men were killed. How even three survived amazes me, but it is hard to imagine anything of the sort.

In the end, whether it is because America was only in the war for a year and a half, or because the trench warfare is overshadowed by its island hopping, beach storming brother of WWII, it is a shame that so many forget about WWI. It may have only been a few months that American forces were in France, but those few months were the worst in the lives of each and every man and woman there. It’s cliché to say it was hell for them, but I cannot think of anything else to say.

Anyway, this is the first in line of WWI posts and the first in a broader line of history posts. I hope you enjoyed it!

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