by Stan Wise
Farm Forum Editor
When I was a boy of 9 or 10 years old, my favorite movie was “Sergeant York.”
If you’re not familiar with the movie or the American hero on whom it was based, Sgt. Alvin C. York was an American soldier in World War I who led a small group of soldiers in an attack that captured 35 German machine guns and 132 enemy soldiers. For his actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Gary Cooper played York, and he won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1941 for his portrayal, and the film won the award for Best Picture. It is, I think, an excellent movie.
For many years, the movie formed my basic understanding of World War I. That means I thought Europe was having a tough time of it until the Americans decided to enter the war in 1917. I thought, “Yes, the German machine guns were a problem, but they were quickly overcome by a little American dash and marksmanship.” After all, the war was over in 1918, so that means the Americans saved the day, right?
The answer, I would learn later, is only a qualified yes.
My schooling in high school and college did little to disabuse me of my childish notions based on one film. As an adult I decided to learn more. What I learned quickly disabused me of my view of World War I as a European affair that America rescued from disaster.
It turns out, World War I wasn’t called “The Great War” or “The War to End All Wars” for nothing. It was, simply put, hell on Earth. Old World military tactics met modern military killing efficiency, and the result was a battleground that churned through a generation of young men.
Germany had the most modern and possibly greatest land army on Earth. However Germany and its allies faced France, which wasn’t too far behind Germany, and Great Britain, which had not only the best navy but also the most professional and experienced army on Earth.
These great powers (along with many others including Italy, Russia, Japan, the Ottoman Empire, and Austro-Hungarian Empire) created a meat grinder. Modern military equipment turned much of Europe into a moonscape onto which men stepped at their peril. Estimates of total military deaths in WWI range from 8.5 to 10.8 million. Of that total, American soldiers account for nearly 117,000, a thankfully small number compared to other countries involved in the conflict.
So what kind of place did our soldiers enter? Rolling artillery barrages had turned forests into toothpicks. There was mud so thick that it swallowed men and horses whole. When men died, they were often buried under the planks at the bottom of the trenches or in the sides of the trench walls. Millions of men died for the front lines to move mere feet. According to contemporary accounts, you could smell the front lines for miles in either direction.
For four years, the most powerful countries on the planet threw their sons into a perfect killing field. For all the great nations knew, the world was ending. In fact, the generation that came of age during World War I was known as the Lost Generation.
Eventually, this meat grinder took its toll more heavily on Germany and the Central Powers than it did the Allied Powers. Germany had few colonies while France and Great Britain had many colonies on which they could depend for fresh troops.
When the U.S. finally decided to enter the war on the side of the Allied Powers, Germany and its allies were doomed. That wasn’t because American soldiers were so much better than the professional soldiers who had been fighting the war since 1914. No, it was because Germany could no longer afford to spend lives in the meat grinder as rapidly as the Allied Powers.
That’s what the war came down to — which group of combatants could afford to lose more men. Knowing that, I can’t imagine the bravery and strength of endurance it must have taken to be a soldier, on either side, in that war.
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, an armistice was enacted, and all was quiet on the Western Front. It was an end to the most horrific conflict the world had ever seen. That’s why November 11 became Armistice Day, which eventually became Veterans Day in the U.S.
As we celebrate Veterans Day, let’s take a moment to remember the true hell which sparked this national holiday to honor all veterans.
This weekend, we honor all of our nation’s soldiers who have served to keep the rest of us safe. This national holiday was brought to us by men who endured the worst humanity had to offer, and it is a reminder that we have soldiers, men and women, defending us every day.
As someone whose family depends on the safety guaranteed by our military, I offer my thanks for the bravery, endurance, dedication and professionalism of the U.S. armed forces.