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The war we all forgot

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BerichtGeplaatst: 03 Jan 2010 16:39    Onderwerp: The war we all forgot Reageer met quote

The war we all forgot

Among the war monuments on the Washington Mall, only the World War I site lies buried in silent, weedy disrepair.

Or at least this was the case two years ago when I last paid a visit to the otherwise spectacular war memorials.

In fact, there is no national monument to World War I on the mall, only the poorly maintained site sponsored by the city of Washington, not the nation.

Perhaps it was inevitable that we would forget what was called the Great War, from 1914-1918, the war to end all wars.

The last veterans of World War I are, after all, fading into history while the popular World War II, with its "Greatest Generation," retains its hold on our imagination, even as its ranks inexorably thin.

Yet, how could we let World War I, with its bloody trench warfare, slide into obscurity, considering the cost.

More than 15 million people paid the price in World War I, including 116,516 American troops killed and 204,002 wounded.

All that said, a new book on World War I, "The Somme, the Darkest Hour on the Western Front," by Peter Hart, should renew interest in the conflict.

Hart has produced a nonfiction version of the "Red Badge of Courage," using the words of the men who fought the battle to portray its still unbelievable cost in human life.

Consider, Britain suffered 57,470 casualties on the first day only of the Somme Battle, which was started on July 1, 1916, and would drag on until November 1916. The clash would ultimately cost a million Allied and German lives.

"They were just mowed down like corn," wrote Pvt. Reginald Glen of the York and Lancaster Regiment.

Here is a typical excerpt from Hart's book:

" "Ľ The anticipation of being hit has become so agonizing that I can scarcely bear it; I almost wish to God I could be hit and have done with it. I have lost some of my men. I feel an overwhelming desire to swear, to blaspheme, to shout out the wickedest oaths I can think of, but I am much too inarticulate to do anything of the kind. A shell bursts near and I feel the hot blast. It seems to me this is a ghastly failure already. A trench runs diagonally across our path. Half of my remaining men are already in it. My whole being cries out in protest against this ordeal. I am streaming with perspiration. I think I shall go mad. I am in the trench, trying to collect the rest of the men together. Where in the devil have they all gone to?" Lieutenant William Colyer, 2nd Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 10th Brigade, 4th Division.

For most of us, this carnage was caused by British expeditionary force leader Douglas Haig, who with other British and French generals stupidly led their helpless troops into the bloody teeth of German machine guns and artillery.


In what amounts to a daring statement, Hart says that Haig really had no choice but to pound away at the German trenches on the Western front, whatever the cost. Nothing else could have decided the war, Hart claims.

Hart's claim, that "Haig's way was excruciatingly painful, but it was the only way," is something I just can't swallow.

Yet Hart has done a brilliant job of bringing the slaughter of the Somme front and center as part of the utter insanity of war and, as such, this book is more than worthwhile.

("The Somme, the Darkest Hour on the Western Front." By Peter Hart. Pegasus Books. 2008. 589.pp.)

Wiley Hilburn Jr. is professor emeritus and the former chair of the journalism department at Louisiana Tech University. Write to him at the Louisiana Tech Department of Journalism, P.O. Box 10258, Ruston, LA, 71272, or e-mail him at
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