As we observe the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, referred back then as “The War to end All Wars,” we quickly realize that it was not.
It was referred to as such because it was a conflict in which the combatants mobilized all of their resources – military, industrial, and human – on a scale never thought possible. Indeed, 70 million military personnel including 60 million Europeans were mobilized in one of the largest wars in history. Nine million combatants and seven million civilians died. The allies had won the First World War, but had lost the “War to End All Wars.”
During the course of the war, Canada paid an enormous price in human lives and injuries. A total of 619,636 people served, of which 66,655 were killed and another 172,950 injured. In the second battle of Ypres in 1915, the First Canadian Division was the only unit to hold the line despite poison gas. In the Battle of the Somme during the latter half of 1916, the fury of war claimed 24,000 casualties. Although not yet part of Canada, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment saw only 68 out of 801 soldiers answer the roll call when the battle ceased.
At Passchendaele, a 100,000 strong Canadian Corps was ordered to the front in October 1917. And of course, Canada became famous throughout the world for the heroic capture of Vimy Ridge in April of 1917. At Vimy, Canadians captured more ground, took more prisoners and enemy weapons than any previous British offences in over two years. The enormous human count was 3,598 dead out of 10,602 casualties. After Vimy it was said of the battle, “It was Canada from Atlantic to Pacific on parade,“ said Brigadier Alexander Ross, “I thought then…that in those few minutes.
I witnessed the birth of a nation.”
The First World War is best known for its trench warfare.
Opposing troops inhabited long lines of trenches dug in sand and mud. In between lay the flat no man’s land where soldiers were often mowed down by machine gun fire or snipers.
Wet and mud
The sandy clay soil impeded drainage as heavy rains flooded the trenches, and the men were seldom dry.
Dysentery and lice
The poor sanitary conditions of trench latrines often led to dysentery which caused inflammation of the large intestine resulting in stomach pains, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever often leading to death.
Standing for hours and days on end in waterlogged conditions while wearing water soaked boots caused trenchfoot – an infection similar to frostbite causing numbness and painful blisters, ultimately turning gangrenous and requiring amputation.
Soldiers had to contend with an enemy within the trenches – namely rats that sometimes fought over the body parts of decomposing soldiers. These rats were often the size of house cats.
If shot, a soldier was expected to treat his own wounds because fellow soldiers were forbidden from stopping to help during an advance. The wounded dragged themselves in to shell holes for cover risking sinking into the mud and drowning.
Weary of the mentally and physically taxing conditions, some men gave themselves self inflicted gunshot wounds in the hope that they would be taken out of the front lines. The very desperate would commit suicide by standing up in the trenches making themselves an easy target.
A large cross section of soldiers evidenced symptoms of shell shock – headaches, giddiness, irritation, and lack of concentration. Some physicians posed that the constant artillery bombardment would create a vacuum, allowing air to rush in, which disrupted the cerebrospinal fluid within the brain, adversely affecting how the mind functioned.
The German army fired chemical filled shells and chlorine gas cylinders against allied troops. These destroyed respiratory organs, resulting in death by asphyxiation.
Human spirit prevails
On Dec. 7, 1914 Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary cessation of hostilities for the celebration of Christmas. Germany agreed immediately, but the other major powers declined.
It was apparent, even without a Christmas truce, that families wanted to make the soldiers’ Christmas special by sending letters, food, cigarettes and even medications. Yet what really conveyed the spirit of Christmas were the troves of small Christmas trees, decorated with candles, put up by the German soldiers. Hundreds of Christmas trees lit up the German trenches, and although seeing the lights, it took a few minutes to figure out what was transpiring.
The sounds of many Germans celebrating could be heard across the trenches and no man’s land. Over and over on Christmas Eve the sounds of merry making could be clearly heard – even shouting “A happy Christmas to you Englishmen.” The British responded, “Same to you Fritz.” The English started singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and the Germans immediately joined in with the Latin words to “Adeste Fideles” – a most extraordinary event. Two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war. On some parts of the line, soldiers from each side would meet in the middle of no man’s land shaking hands, wishing each other a Merry Christmas, sharing cigarettes, exchanging souvenirs. Men were laughing and chatting all through Christmas Eve and day where in the hours prior they were trying to kill each other. Some ended the truce on Christmas night, and some extended it until New Year’s Day. A legendary circumstance of fraternization was the famous soccer game, played in the middle of no man’s land between the British Bedfordshire Regiment and members of the German Army. All this, much to the shock and horror of British Army top brass. A directive was issued to the effect that such fraternization was absolutely forbidden.
So we see two extremes of war. In one case soldiers are struggling for life in the horrific trenches of the battlefield. On the other hand they are fraternizing with the enemy by celebrating Christmas in no man’s land. What more proof do we need that war is insane? Unfortunately, often times, it is also unavoidable. Many historians, in hindsight, believe that the allies were excessive in their punishment of Germany after the First World War, and that the harsh Treaty of Versailles actually planted the seeds for the Second World War, rather than foster peace. The treaty severely punished Germany with hefty economic reparations, territorial losses, and strict limits on its rights to develop a military. The thinking is that the enormous resentment ultimately opened the door to extremist groups such as the Nazi party to exploit the military defeat, civil humiliation, and resentment, and take political control of the country eventually lead to the Second World War.
It was 100 years ago on Nov. 11 that the cessation of hostilities of the First World World came about.
The price was high in terms of human life and sacrifice – 619,636 enrolled in the armed forces, with 66,655 Canadians killed and another 172,950 wounded. As we cast our thoughts towards Canadian veterans of all wars and peacekeeping operations, try to imagine life in the trenches of Europe 100 years ago, with the barest of human necessities and lack of medical resources. Try to imagine what our world would look like today without the sacrifices and bravery of our treasured soldiers of the First World War.