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I realized that by devoting yesterday’s post to philosophical musings about the folly and sadness of the First World War, I failed to thank America’s veterans.  Although I am now a few days off-topic, it is never to late to offer tribute to the brave men and women who have served with such distinction in our armed forces.  Fortuitously, I noticed an obscure bronze plaque which is on the wall by the subway exit I take everyday out of the twisted warren of tunnels beneath Grand Central.  It looks like it is a hundred years old (indeed some of the print is hard to read) but its poignant thanks to the subway workers who left New York’s tunnels to go serve in overseas trenches remains undiminished.  It is also a fitting tribute to America’s citizen-soldiers who step between the world of the warrior and the world of the builder.  Check it out next time you are in Grand Central (if you can find it…or anything… and thanks again to everyone who has served in our armed forces or worked for the military.

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World War I effectively ended on 11 November, 1918 at 5:00 AM when Germany signed an armistice with the Allied powers.  We need a post to appropriately contextualize the end to one of history’s most disastrous chapters, but it is unclear where to start with such a huge and fraught historical subject as the Great War.

Let’s star on the ground, where a generation fought and died.

I am not going to write about the stupid global politics leading up to (and out of) the war.  Suffice to say the vainglorious aristocrats who ran Europe and the world ended up caught in a trap of their own making with no way out other than to bleed their countries dry while hoping for the best. You can read about the events leading up to the war on your own if you wish, but it is turgid stuff and, historians still disagree about the larger lessons (if any).

However a few great works of literature brought home the absolute horror of life in the trenches, and that is what we need to address. The war created a fundamental and inescapable trap for those who served.  It was a trap honed to razor sharpness by the circumstances–but it is familiar to anyone who must deal with bureaucracies or just with other people… and therein lies the horror.

So imagine being conscripted to be an infantryman to fight in France or Belgium.  After scant training your nation hands you a high-powered rifle, and then plops you into a muddy ditch filled with corpses, explosives, and corned beef  until one day you’re told to go “over the top” and charge into an impregnable fortified machine gun nest and certain death or contusion. Really think about the dread of such an order and imagine what you would do.

I am pretty sure you would rush into your death…not because you are a towering model of bravery (though maybe you are), but because what other choice would you have?  To refuse and be summarily shot by an officer? To shiftlessly loll around the back until your fellow soldiers noticed and decided you were worthless and arranged an accident? To go stark raving mad on the spot? Those things seem worse than being blasted to pieces by shrapnel and rifle bullets.  Likewise they seemed worse to millions of soldiers who knew pretty quickly what the true nature of the war was, but who had no way out other than to carry on in impossible circumstances.

World War I represents the full horror of human society.  Acting together, the rest of humankind can make you DO ANYTHING.  There is no resisting them.

Modern humans are like ants: we wither and die without our extended networks.  These networks are our glory–they provide us resources and information we could never obtain on our own–but, if they somehow go wrong, they are a prison sterner than any Alcatrez or Devil’s Island.  Imagine the worst moments of 8th grade.  Now imagine it with Howitzers the size of fortresses and poison gas and the worst boss you have ever had (except with power of instant execution over you).

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We would like to pretend otherwise but human society is often harmful and vicious. World War I perfectly demonstrates that problem. Everyone said “Huzzah! our brave boys will win the day with true bravery…but true bravery is no match for industrial machines and implacable logistics (and pig-headed politicians).  World War I was a perfect inflection point of the stupidities and horrors of preindustrial feudal society with the stupidities and horrors of modernity and machine-like hierarchies.

And then, after all of that, we didn’t learn our lesson.  It was only the first round of the two part drama of the World Wars.

Well…so far anyway

It isn’t as though nationalism and monstrous greed have vanished among  politicians and business leaders. Enormous machines and hierarchies become more enormous and hierarchical.  Politicans (and the rest of us) however have not grown noticeably.  Even if there were visionaries and geniuses who could prevent any more such disasters, the rest of us people would never let them.

So thank goodness the Great War has been gone for a hundred years, but we all need to remember it and to remember to work tirelessly at dealing better with each other…if we even can.

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Verdun

A century ago the Battle of Verdun was taking place. This was a battle between the French and the German armies during World War I which began on February 21st 1916 and lasted until the 18th of December 1916. It is famous for being one of the worst battles ever: a complete catastrophe where poor leadership, innate human savagery, and industrial warfare combined to destroy countless lives.

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The battle started when the German high command abandoned its attempt to smash through the French lines and achieve a quick victory (the central plan of their war efforts up that point). Instead the German generals felt that they could “bleed the French to death” in a costly war of attrition if they attacked in such a place that the French could not retreat from for reasons of pride and necessity. They chose to attack an ancient fortress on the Meuse River–Verdun. The town had a long history of war. Attila the Hun’s armies were driven back at Verdun in the Fifth Century AD. The town traded place between France and The Holy Roman Empire in the Dark Ages. There was also a modern fortress there, although it had been denuded somewhat of weapons at the beginning of the war (because it was not thought to be of high strategic importance).

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The Germans built ten train lines (and twenty new stations) to quickly provision the battle. Yet the French had done a better job of (re)fortifying the area on short notice than the Germans had expected and the German attempt to seize advantageous tactical positions was not entirely successful. But the battle had begun. The German meatgrinder began to pulverize the reserves of the French army.

As it turned out, the German generals were proven right: the French army refused to retreat or surrender. They remained in place and defended Verdun at a terrible cost. However there was a second part of the German strategy which the Field Marshalls had initially overlooked: it turned out that for reasons of pride and necessity, the German army could not retreat or surrender either. The huge modernized armies armies were trapped locked together in a few square kilometers for 11 months. During that time they fired 10,000,000 shells at each other: a total of 1,350,000 long tons of high explosives and shrapnel. The new weapons of the day—poison gas, flamethrowers, grenades, airplanes, and machine guns all made frequent appearances.

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Spent shell casings at Verdun

I cannot give you a blow by blow account of the battle. More than a million men attacked and counter attacked again and again and again. You can read a synopsis online, or look up the details in one of the many books about Verdun.

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What we can say is that Verdun was a nightmare of mud and mechanized death. The year was wet and the local clay quickly became a treacherous landscape of mud filled with war debris and human waste and remains. Trenches and shell holes became slimy drowning pits filled with barbed wire and metal shards. The living and the dead alike rotted in place as millions of shells rained down along with the ever-present rain.

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Historians disagree on the full cost of Verdun, but total casualties (men seriously wounded to the point they were lastingly removed from combat) for both armies numbered between 750,000 and 960,000. An appallingly high number of these casualties were men killed outright. There were tens of thousands of combatants who went missing in action and have never returned.

During the Battle of Verdun, the French army came perilously close to coming apart entirely. Desertions began to run high (though deserters who were caught were summarily executed by firing squad for cowardice). Men went mad and became completely unhinged.  Antoine Prost wrote, “Like Auschwitz, Verdun marks a transgression of the limits of the human condition”  A French officer who was there (and who died there before the battle ended) wrote ” Hell cannot be so terrible.”

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The battlefield today (still scars upon the land)

And in the end the result of the internecine battle was…stalemate. Both sides lost more than they could afford and neither gained a real advantage (although strategists grudgingly grant victory to France for not breaking). The war moved on—soon an equally large battle was taking place at the Somme 125 miles to the Northwest. At any rate there was a second battle of Verdun in summer of 1917…not to mention a whole second world war a generation later.

Papaver rhoeas is an annual flower which grows across Eurasia and northern Africa.  The brilliant vermilion flower is commonly known as the red poppy, the corn poppy, or the field poppy.  This plant has an ancient and unmistakable connection to agriculture. The poppy tends to grow in ground which has been broken.  It is fairly resistant to non-chemical weed control mechanisms, and it can grow, flower, and then set seed before barley or wheat is harvested.  All of this means that field poppies were an inextricable part of early grain fields (where they were sometimes more abundant then the grain).

Even though the wildflowers are weeds, they are very beautiful weeds and the ancient Greeks were quick to give divine significance to the red blossoms. Demeter was the goddess of agriculture who legendarily presented humankind with the secrets to grain-farming (a craft which she first revealed to the demi-god Triptolemus).  Her emblem was the red poppy growing among the barley. The flower’s distinctive red with orange undertones gave its name to a color coquelicot (which is the French word for the corn poppy).  In English, the word coquelicot has been used to describe that color (which, coincidentally is one of my favorite) since the 18th century.

As noted above, the poppy sprouts up in broken ground. During World War I, artillery bombardment and trench excavation caused tremendous ground disturbance, which caused the poppies to flourish. All throughout the warm months of the conflict the flowers bloomed profusely in no-man’s land and between the trench lines.  One of the war’s most famous poems “In Flander’s Field” was a short rhymed poem in the form of a French rondeau which described the poppies blowing among the endless lines of freshly dug graves.

The armistice which ended World War I and silenced the big guns took place on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. In the years after the war, veterans from the Allied forces were honored (and the dead remembered) by the wearing of real or artificial poppies on Armistice Day. In the United States, Congress changed the name of Armistice Day into Veterans Day on 1954 in order to honor all veterans (although, naturally, in other Allied nations today remains Armistice Day or Remembrance Day).  The wearing of red poppies (which apparently started in America) has been largely supplanted by other national symbols like the yellow ribbon and Old Glory. None-the-less this is still a day we share with our allies.

This is a particularly sad and touching Veterans’ Day both because of the wars we are currently fighting in Central Asia and because, earlier in 2011 the last few field veterans of the Great War died.  There is now no one left alive who fought in World War I and saw the red poppies flowering among the mud and steel and bones of no-man’s land. Years ago it struck me forcefully that the Lost Generation was vanishing when I was in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and saw a sign explaining how the last few Armisitice maples (silver maples planted in great sweeping avenues to commemorate the end of the First World War) were being taken down and replaced with Red Oaks to commemorate September 11th.  Even mighty trees wear down. Generations die and are replaced.  New tragedies come along. However the soldiers’ vigilance and sacrifice are never over. I would like to thank all of the men and women who have served in the uniform of the United States or its allies.  If anybody deserves to have the sacred flower of the goddess of grain repurposed to memorialize their valor, it is surely them.

An Aerial View of Lochnagar Crater in Summer of 2009

On July 1st 1916 at 7:28 AM, the British Army detonated the Lochnagar mine–two underground charges of a high explosive compound called ammonal (respectively 24,000lb and 30,000lb) thereby entirely vaporizing a large section of trenches filled with German infantryman.  This was only one of 17 giant mines which the British exploded in Northern France that morning.  In fact there were an original total of 21 buried explosive charges—but, because of various exigencies, two of these were not exploded until much later on July 1st (one of the remaining charges was detonated by lightning many years after the war, and another was never found).

One of the Other 17 Mined Explosions that Morning (Hawthorne Ridge)

The explosions followed 16 days of heavy artillery fire and immediately preceded a general infantry charge which began the Battle of the Somme. It was an appropriately apocalyptic beginning of the worst day ever for the British armed forces—by midnight there were 57,470 British casualties (19,240 of whom died of their injuries).  The battle of the Somme itself ground on until 18 November, 1916 by which point it had claimed over 1,200,000 casualties from both sides.  More than three hundred thousand people were killed during the course of the battle.

Lochnagar Crater after the Battle of the Somme

Today the huge scars from that morning have been filled in by farmland—with the notable exception of Lochnagar crater, which was privately purchased and left as a monument to the futility and destruction of World War I. Erosion is taking its toll on the crater, yet, even after nearly a century, the great hole still has a diameter of approximately 91 meters (300 feet) and a depth of 21 meters (70 feet).  Lochnagar crater is said to be the largest extant crater created by human artifice during war (obviously pit mines and nuclear test sites are much larger).  It still possesses a unique horror—a round void in the placid farmlands of Picardy. To this day the grain fields around it yield rusted rifles, dented helmets, and skeletons in addition to wheat.

I am writing about this disquieting pockmark as preparation for writing about Armistice Day later this week, when we can reflect on World War I — surely one of the most comprehensive disasters to befall humankind.  I am also writing about the largest wartime crater on earth, as an opportunity to note how feebly small it is in comparison to even modest meteor impact craters such as Lake Lonar or Kaali Craters, both of which happened in the remote past–to say nothing of giants like the Manicouagan Crater in Quebec which has a diameter of 70 kilometers (even after 225 million years of erosion).

A High Altitude Photo of Manicouagan Crater

Of course all of this should really be cause to reflect on how lucky we are—not only have we missed the Great War (except for you, Florence Green, if you’re reading this), but we have also missed all sorts of other unfortunate events.  Today at 6:28 PM EST, an asteroid passed by the Earth.  At its closest point it was nearer to us than the moon.  The space rock (unsentimentally named “2005 YU55”) was about the size of an aircraft carrier and was traveling faster than 13 km (8 miles) a second.  An amateur astrophysicist on the web estimates that it would have created a crater more than 5 kilometers in diameter if it had struck a limestone region of Earth.

Asteroid 2005 YU55

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