On the first Armistice Day—November 11, 1918—there were 10,944 casualties on the Western Front, with 2,738 soldiers slain. The armistice had been expected for days, and word spread quickly of its signing about 5 a.m. that morning. Yet the killing, incredibly, actually quickened.
According to Joseph H. Persico in Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour (Random House, 2004), casualties on the Western Front during the First World War’s 1,561 days averaged 2,250 dead and slightly less than 5,000 wounded per day. Officers seeking a last chance to advance their careers, commanders desiring to punish the enemy one more time, and less ambitious men dully following outdated orders all contributed to making the 11th morning of November a more than usually murderous one.
Persico also points out that the casualties in Normandy on June 6, 1944, were about 10,000 for all sides. D-Day’s desperate assault, involving hundreds of thousands of combatants in fierce fighting, produced fewer casualties than the first day of peace in 1918.
The war that ended 90 years ago was that kind of war. Persico’s calculations yield 29,800,700 battle casualties: 8,364,700 were killed and 21,436,000 were wounded, of which an estimated seven million were permanently maimed. Small comfort that it was the last major war in which the number of civilian deaths (6,276,000) was smaller than that suffered by military personnel.
What in Canada is called Remembrance Day has never been a victory celebration—not that we are without victories. In April 2007, the Vimy Ridge Monument in France was rededicated to mark the successful Easter Monday attack, April 7, 1917, that was Canada’s first successful offensive battle on an international stage. Remembrance Day, on the other hand, is when we recall the rest of that sad, insane, sickening maelstrom that destroyed a good part of a generation and forever soured the attitude of most of its survivors.
Canada did have another victory in the war to end all wars, but until a feature film came out this year, there were few who marked it. On November 6, 1917, elements of the Second Canadian Division entered the village of Passchendaele, Belgium, along with Britain’s 6th Brigade. The only way they could tell they had reached their objective was a fragment of stone wall less than a metre high amid a sea of muddy shell holes, indicating where the village church had once stood. A grand advance of seven kilometres had been achieved since the Third Battle of Ypres began four months before, at the cost of about 750,000 casualties on all sides.
In his book In Flanders Fields: The 1917 Campaign (Viking Press, 1959), Leon Wolff tells how Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Sir Launcelot Kiggell, planned the four months of assaults with meticulous brilliance. Kiggell was a fiend for detail and much admired for taking into account every available shell and shoelace. What he did not account for was that the water table in the Ypres flatlands came to within a half-metre of the surface of the ground. The problem was made worse by destroyed canals and drainage ditches, and the nearly constant rain during the attacks, compounded by constant shelling, turned the earth into bloody, body-sucking porridge.
No one knows the ratio between soldiers killed by bullets and shells compared to how many slipped off makeshift duckboards and drowned in the muck while trying to advance to attack positions. At least attempts were made to save some of the men, as opposed to tens of thousands of pack horses, donkeys, and mules that sank into the mud, their screams not easily ignored even in the din of the shelling.
It all made for a disturbing sight when Gen. Kiggell decided for the first time since the war began to leave headquarters and set his own eyes on the landscape of victory.
“As his staff car lurched through the swampland and neared the battleground he became more and more agitated. Finally he burst into tears and muttered, ”˜Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?’
“The man beside him, who been through the campaign, replied tonelessly, ”˜It’s worse further up.’?” Along with other historians, Wolff spares us the reaction of the hitherto weeping Kiggell to what he saw “further up” on his victory tour. We can try to imagine what horrors reduced a general to anguished sobbing, and the laconic topper tells us the battlefield itself was beyond any imagining.
By the end, it was obvious to almost everyone that the First World War had gotten the world nowhere. The hard line taken by France at Versailles in 1919 was motivated by revenge more than any desire to accomplish anything, and the supposed aim of preventing Germany from ever again having the capability to wage aggressive war failed rather spectacularly.
The fall of monarchies, the rearrangement of diplomatic chess pieces, and other such changes have all had their effect over time, but when the war ended most people only knew that millions of innocent young men had been turned into bloodstained soil. And when the dazed and maimed returned to ask, “For what?”, there was no answer because patriotic platitudes were inadequate against the sheer magnitude of the disaster that had strewn immense fields of graves from the North Sea to Switzerland.
In Canada, there were towns that were half-abandoned because most of the men had gone overseas and so few had come back. But listing casualties by country is futile, because it implies there is some dark contest in suffering. It always ends in a tie. The disaster happened to all of us on Earth, as wars always do. The trouble is it happens all too personally to the young men (and, these days, young women) we send to do jobs that are supposedly more important than surviving to have children of their own.
“To all the world he was a soldier. To me he was all the world.” That epitaph on many a First World War grave speaks profoundly of innumerable personal universes shattered and diminished. The trouble is that wars recede in time, and numbers like eight million dead become just numbers. Remembrance becomes amnesia.
Near Verdun, France, stands the Douaumont Ossuary, a tall stone beacon that is a storehouse for human remains that kept rising to the surface of the surrounding fields after November 11, 1918: the bones of 150,000 men in all. According to Alistair Horne in The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 (St. Martin’s Press, 1962), a Maj. Roman of the French army got to meet a few of those men face to face while they were still in the flesh.
Corpses were routinely interred in the sides of trenches because burial parties could not venture into the incessant shelling, and the shelling, in turn, kept sifting the corpse-ridden earth like a baker mixing flour and raisins. Roman was assigned to his forward position in July, halfway through a 10-month battle that killed or wounded at least 700,000 and possibly more than a million, and a falling shell provided a surprise outside his headquarters dugout.
“On my arrival, the corpse of an infantryman in a blue cap partially emerges from this compound of earth, stone, and unidentifiable debris.”
“But a few hours later, it is no longer the same; he has disappeared and has been replaced by a Tirailleur in khaki. And successively there appear other corpses in other uniforms. The shell that buries one disinters another. One gets acclimatized, however, to this spectacle; one can bear the horrible order of this charnel-house in which one lives, but one’s joie de vivre, after the war, will be eternally poisoned by it.”
Generals, presidents, and prime ministers survive to write memoirs about their victories, so they have no problem being remembered. November 11 is when we remember the others, the innocents who on that day briefly emerge from the past—from the churning chaos of war, from the stinking filth of trenches, and from charred shell craters—to remind us in their millions that they might, indeed, have died in vain. And then they are submerged again in our collective unconsciousness.