Monday, May 30, 2011

In Flanders Fields

Original Handwritten Copy of "In Flanders Fields"
The Great Canadian War Project has a write up on the circumstances surrounding the writing of the original poem. Interesting to note that the author initially threw it in the trash, and it was only retrieved and mailed to various newspapers in England by another officer.

Interestingly, many modern renditions do not include the 3rd stanza. Even in 1921, just a few scant years after the Armistice, when it ran in the London Times it was already fashionable to omit the final stanza. In fact, when I was in middle school and had to memorize it, I think I only memorized the two verse rendition. It was not until I was studying the first World War in college that I realized there even was a third stanza for that poem. Many want to treat it as an anti-war poem, but if you read the 3rd stanza, you see it actually is not. I am not making a political comment here; I just find it interesting how many people want to conveniently forget the last stanza.

This is not to say that World War I was not a tragedy. It most certainly was. If you pulled a random soldier off the line in, say, 1916 or 1917 and asked him what the war was about, he probably could not have told you. Once the allure of patriotism wore off and the dread horrors of modern warfare sunk it, few enlisted men could have given you a coherent reason for why their lives were being thrown away, other than because their nation said so.

Modern historians' best estimates as to the death toll is around 37.5 million, which includes both military (15 million alone) and civilian deaths (including the Armenian massacres). That was all basically for no purpose. Even by war's end, basically the major borders of the European nations were virtually where they were at the start of the war, with a few minor exceptions like Alsace-Lorraine.

Perhaps the saddest story is the British policy of PALS battalions. Basically, the military doctrine was that the best fighting force would be a force where everyone knew each other. In other words, all the men from a certain town or region would be put together into a battalion, with the logic that they had all grown up together and knew each other intimately well. There was a logic to that, but the problem was what happened when those battalions got completely wiped out in the killing fields of trench warfare? Entire regions would literally lose an entire generation of young men. There's been studies done on places like the Labrador Peninsula in Canada and certain areas in Australian that were population centers at the beginning of the war, but to this day are some of the most sparsely populated areas in those countries because an entire generation of men literally disappears overnight, never to return. Those places simply never recovered in terms of population.

Things like that are the tragedies of war. We can estimate (often with morbid accuracy) the cost of war in terms of dollars and equipment and even manpower for that matter. But its the unknown cost that is hard to estimate. How many civilians are going to get killed? How many factories and infrastructure are going to be bombed out? How many building rendered useless after the war? That's the hard part because nobody knows.

Particularly in terms of World War I, everyone assumed they could scientifically prove what the other side could and would do, and as such both sides were convinced that they could end the war with pre-emptive moves at the beginning, and everyone would be home by Christmas. The problem there was that all the assumptions and statistics were based on tactics and equipment from the previous war. Times had changed; science had re-invented methods of wars. All the assumptions went out the window, and 37.5 million lives later, nothing productive had been accomplished utter than total destruction because no one knew what was about to hit them.
Flanders, after the Battle. 

This Memorial Day, I invite you to ponder that. Remember the human cost.

O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful
hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of
decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant
that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the
benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This
we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
-BCP, pg. 839

2 comments:

The Archer of the Forest said...

Here is a sobering look at the current conflicts in terms of human cost:

http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/war.casualties/index.html?hpt=C1

The Archer of the Forest said...

Notice the big dots over Knoxville, TN. I knew quite a few of those boys.