Monday, October 18, 2010
The Guns of August
My step-grandfather fought in World War I and was awarded the Purple Heart. I wished I could have heard his story, but I always had the feeling that that was probably not something he wanted to talk about. I can't imagine what it would have been like for this simple man to be involved in the "Great War." All he cared about in life was his faith, his family and his farm. What was is like to be caught up in the horrible casualties of human pride, arrogance, and stubbornness?
World War I was similar to other wars. It involved fear: The Germans worried about encirclement. It involved revenge: France wanted Alsace-Lorraine back. It involved treaty obligations: Sides were quickly drawn after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia due to prior commitments. Most of all it involved militarism: Armies are an unfortunate necessity in a sinful world. But armies can't train indefinitely. Generals get antsy. If a war doesn't start up on it's own every forty years or so, they'll find a way to get one started.
According to Barbara Tuchman in "The Guns of August," this war was different and would create new components to war that would continue into the future. The German generals knew they had to conquer France quickly before they would have to deal with Russia. The plan was to have that done in forty days. Advances in weaponry such as the machine gun and improved artillery would definitely speed up the process by which an army could be destroyed. This war would include huge casualty reports - as many as 50,000 in one day! The plan also included something they called "schrechligkeit," or "terror" to break the spirit of the civilians. In Belgium the Germans methodically selected citizens for execution. Their excuse was that the Belgium people had the audacity to snipe at the invading German soldiers. Perhaps the most unforgivable act was the burning of Louvain and its famous library. Massive destruction and civilian terror would be two unfortunate realities from now on.
As I read this book I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable with the record of destruction being described: Men so exhausted and filthy you could smell them before you saw them, Hundreds dying here, Thousands killed there, etc., Pages and pages of this! What could it have been like for the individual soldier in the thick of it? I have the feeling the Grampa knew very little of the causes or the future implications of this war. But he knew enough about these things to know that they should be avoided at all costs. No wonder he and many other former soldiers I've met don't want to talk about it.