December 2, 1943 The Surprising Origins of Chemotherapy

In the 12th century, Bernard of Chartres described a process of finding truth, in building on the earlier discoveries of others. The concept is encapsulated in the words of Isaac Newton, in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.

In ancient Greek mythology, Hercules poisoned arrows with the venom of the Hydra. Both sides in the battle for Troy used poisoned arrows, according to the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer.   Alexander the great encountered poison arrows and fire weapons in the Indus valley of India, in the fourth century, BC.  Chinese chronicles describe an arsenic laden “soul-hunting fog” produced by the burning of toxic vegetation, used to disperse a peasant revolt in AD178.

“Soul-hunting fog”.

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The French were the first to use poison weapons in the modern era in August 1914, when tear gas grenades containing xylil bromide were used against German forces in the first month, of the Great War.

Imperial Germany was first to give serious study to chemical weapons of war, early experiments with irritants taking place at the battle of Neuve-Chapelle in October 1914, and with tear gas at Bolimów on January 31, 1915 and again at Nieuport, that March.

The first widespread use of poison gas, in this case chlorine, came on April 22, 1915, at the second battle of Ypres.

The story of gas warfare is inextricably linked with that of World War 1.  124,000 tons of the stuff was produced by all sides by the end of the war, accounting for 1,240,853 casualties, including the agonizing death of 91,198.

WW1 gas attack in Flanders

Had the war continued into 1919, technological advances promised new and fresh hell, unimaginable to the modern reader.

Today we think of chemical agents in WW2 as being limited to the death camps of the Nazis, but such weapons were far more widespread.  The Imperial Japanese military frequently used vesicant (blister) agents such as lewisite and mustard gas against Chinese military and civilians, and in the hideous “medical experiments” conducted on live prisoners at Unit 731 and Unit 516.  Emperor Hirohito personally authorized the use of toxic gas during the 1938 Battle of Wuhan, on no fewer than 375 occasions.

Japanese, Gas Artillery

The Italian military destroyed every living creature in its path during the 1936 Colonial war with Ethiopia, in what Emperor Haile Selassie called “a fine, death-dealing rain”.

Nazi Germany possessed some 45,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, though such weapons were rarely used against western adversaries.  The “Ostfront” – the battle on the eastern front – was a different story.  Russian resistance fighters and Red Army soldiers were attacked, most notably during the assault on the catacombs of Odessa in 1941, the 1942 siege of Sebastopol, and the nearby caves and tunnels of the Adzhimuskai quarry, where “poison gas was released into the tunnels, killing all but a few score of the (3,000+) Soviet defenders”.

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None of the western allies resorted to chemical warfare in WW2, despite having accumulated over twice the chemical stockpile as that of Nazi Germany.  The policy seems to have been one of “mutually assured destruction” where no one wanted to be first to go there, but all sides reserved the option.  Great Britain possessed massive quantities of mustard, chlorine, Lewisite, Phosgene and Paris Green, awaiting retaliatory strike should Nazi Germany resort to such weapons on the beaches of Normandy. 

General Alan Brooke, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, said he “[H]ad every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches” in the event of a German landing on the British home islands.

The official American policy toward chemical weapons was enunciated in 1937, by President Franklin Roosevelt: “I am doing everything in my power to discourage the use of gases and other chemicals in any war between nations. While, unfortunately, the defensive necessities of the United States call for study of the use of chemicals in warfare, I do not want the Government of the United States to do anything to aggrandize or make permanent any special bureau of the Army or the Navy engaged in these studies. I hope the time will come when the Chemical Warfare Service can be entirely abolished”.

The Geneva Protocols of 1925 banned the use of chemical weapons, but not their manufacture, or transport.  By 1942, the U.S. Chemical Corps employed some 60,000 soldiers and civilians and controlled a $1 Billion budget.

In August 1943, Roosevelt authorized the delivery of chemical munitions containing mustard gas, to the Mediterranean theater. Italy surrendered in early September, changing sides with the signing of the armistice of Cassibile.

The liberty ship SS John Harvey arrived at the southern Italian port of Bari in November, carrying 2000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each containing 60 to 70-pounds of sulfur mustard.

Bari was packed at the time, with ships waiting to be unloaded.  It would be days before stevedores could get to her. Captain John Knowles wanted to inform port authorities of his deadly cargo and request that she be unloaded immediately, but secrecy prevented him from doing so. As it was, John Harvey was still waiting to be unloaded, on December 2.

For Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the traffic jam at Bari was an opportunity to slow the advance of the British 8th army on the Italian peninsula.

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Air raid on Bari, December 2, 1943

The “Little Pearl Harbor” began at 7:25PM when 105 Junkers JU-88 bombers came out of the East.   The tactical surprise was complete, and German pilots were able to bomb the harbor with great accuracy. Two ammunition ships were first to explode, shattering windows some 7 miles away. A bulk gasoline pipeline was severed as a sheet of burning fuel spread across the harbor, igniting those ships left undamaged.

43 ships were sunk, damaged or destroyed including John Harvey, which erupted in a massive explosion.  Liquid sulfur mustard spilled into the water, as a cloud of toxic vapor blew across the port and into the city.

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Mustard gas is a cytotoxic agent, capable of entering the system via skin, eyes and respiratory tract and attacking every cell type with which it comes into contact. First comes a garlic odor as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground.  Contact results in redness and itching at first, resulting 12-24 hours later in excruciating, untreatable blisters on exposed areas of the skin.  Sufferers are literally burned inside and out as mucous membranes are stripped away from the eyes, nose and respiratory tract.

Death comes in days or weeks.  Survivors are likely to develop chronic respiratory disease and infections. DNA is permanently altered, often resulting in cancer and birth defects. To this day there is no antidote.

A thousand or more died outright in the bombing of December 2, 1943.  643 military service personnel were hospitalized for gas symptoms.  83 of them were dead, by the end of the month.  The number of civilian casualties is unknown.  The whole episode was shrouded in secrecy and remains to this day, one of the lesser-known chapters of World War 2.

At the time, the chemical disaster at Bari was of uncertain nature.  Everyone with any knowledge of John Harvey’s secret cargo had been killed in the explosion.  Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander, an American physician from New Jersey, was sent by the Deputy Surgeon General of the US Army to find out what happened.

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It was Dr. Alexander who figured out the responsible agent was mustard, and where the stuff had come from.   In the process of testing, Dr. Alexander noticed the unknown agent went most heavily after rapidly dividing cells, such as white blood cells.

Alexander wondered if it might be useful in going after other types of rapidly dividing cells.

Like cancer.

Based on Dr. Alexander’s field work, Yale pharmacologists Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman developed the first anti-cancer chemotherapy drug, in the treatment of lymphoma. 

In the 12th century, Bernard of Chartres described a process of finding truth, based on previous discoveries. The concept is remembered in the words of Sir Isaac Newton, in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.

Dr. Sidney Farber of Boston built on this earlier work, producing remission in children with acute Leukemia using Aminopterin, an early precursor to Methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug still in use, today.

To some, the SS John Harvey a “savior of millions”, due to the vessel’s role in the pioneering era of modern chemotherapy drugs.

The claim may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not much.  Once a virtual death sentence, the American Cancer Society today estimates that one in 30 alive today are currently undergoing treatment or have done so, in the past.

November 11, 1918 The 11th Hour

Many of the soldiers who went off to war in those days, viewed the conflict as some kind of grand adventure. Many of them singing patriotic songs, the young men and boys of Russia, Germany, Austria and France stole last kisses from wives and sweethearts, and boarded their ships and trains.

The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11, and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire could have led to nothing more than a regional squabble.  A policing action, in the Balkans.

As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances combined with slavish obedience to mobilization timetables, to draw the Great Powers of Europe, into the vortex.  On August 3, the “War to End All Wars” exploded across the European continent.

Many of the soldiers who went off to war in those days, viewed the conflict as some kind of grand adventure. Many of them singing patriotic songs, the young men and boys of Russia, Germany, Austria and France stole last kisses from wives and sweethearts, and boarded their ships and trains.

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Believing overwhelming manpower to be the key to victory, British Secretary of State for War Lord Horatio Kitchener recruited friends and neighbors by the tens of thousands into “Pal’s Battalions”, to fight for King and country.The signs could have been written in any number of languages, in the early phase of the war

Four years later, an entire generation had been chewed up and spit out, in pieces.

Many single day’s fighting during the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, civilian and military, combined.

6,503 Americans lost their lives during the savage, month-long battle for Iwo Jima, in 1945. The first day’s fighting during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, killed three times that number on the British and Commonwealth side, alone.Over 1.5 million shells were fired in the days leading to the battle of the Somme

Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded, while vast stretches of the European countryside were literally, torn to pieces. Tens of thousands remain missing, to this day.

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Had you found yourself in the mud and the blood, the rats and the lice of the trenches during the New Year of 1917-’18, you may have heard a plaintive refrain drifting across the barbed wire and frozen wastes of no man’s land, sung to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne”.

We’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here,
we’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here.

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Those who fought the “Great War”, were not always human.  The carrier pigeon Cher Ami escaped a hail of bullets and returned twenty-five miles to her coop despite a sucking chest wound, the loss of an eye and a leg that hung on, by a single tendon.  The message she’d been given to carry, saved the lives of 190 men.

“Warrior” was the thoroughbred mount to General “Galloper” Jack Seely, arriving in August 1914 and serving four years “over there”. “The horse the Germans can’t kill” survived snipers, poison gas and shellfire to be twice buried alive in great explosions, only to return home to the Isle of Wight, and live to the ripe old age of 33.First division Rags

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First Division Rags” ran through a torrent of shells, gassed and blinded in one eye, a shell fragment damaging his front paw, yet still, he got his message through.

Jackie the baboon lost a leg during heavy bombardment from German guns, while frantically building a protective rock wall around himself, and his comrades.

Tirpitz the German pig jumped clear of the sinking light cruiser SMS Dresden, to become mascot to the HMS Glasgow.

Sixteen million animals served on all sides and in all theaters of WW1:  from cats to canaries, to pigeons and mules, camels, donkeys and dogs.  As “dumb animals”, these were never given the choice to “volunteer”.  And yet they served, some nine million making the supreme sacrifice by decision, other than their own.

In the end, starvation and malnutrition stalked the land at home as well as the front, with riots at home and mutiny in the trenches. The Russian Empire of the Czars had collapsed into a Bolshevik hellhole, never to return.  Nearly every combatant saw the disintegration of its domestic economy, or teetering on the brink.

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A strange bugle call came out of the night of November 7, 1918. French soldiers of the 171st Régiment d’Infanterie, stationed near Haudroy, advanced into the fog and the darkness, expecting that they were about to be attacked. Instead, they were shocked to see the apparitions of three sedans, their sides displaying the German Imperial Eagle.

Imperial Germany, its army disintegrating in the field and threatened with revolution at home had sent a peace delegation, headed by the 43-year-old German politician Matthias Erzberger.

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The delegation was escorted to the Compiegne Forest near Paris, to a conference room fashioned out of a railroad dining car. There they were met by a delegation headed by Ferdinand Foch, Marshall of France.

Adolf Hitler would gleefully accept French surrender in the same rail car, some twenty-two years later.

The German delegation was shocked at the words that came out of Foch’s mouth. ‘Ask these gentlemen what they want,’ he said to his interpreter. Stunned, Erzberger responded. The German believed that they were there to discuss terms of an armistice. Foch dropped the hammer: “Tell these gentlemen that I have no proposals to make”.

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Ferdinand Foch had seen his country destroyed by war, and had vowed “to pursue the Feldgrauen (Field Grays) with a sword at their backs”. He had no intention of letting up.

Marshall Foch now produced a list of thirty-four demands, each one a sledgehammer blow on the German delegation. Germany was to divest herself of all means of self-defense, from her high seas fleet to the last machine gun. She was to withdraw from all lands occupied since 1870. With the German population at home facing starvation, the allies were to confiscate 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railroad cars, and 5,000 trucks.

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By this time, 2,250 were dying every day on the Western Front.  Foch informed Ertzberger that he had 72 hours in which to respond. “For God’s sake, Monsieur le Marechal”, responded the German, “do not wait for those 72 hours. Stop the hostilities this very day”.  Even so, the plea fell on deaf ears. Fighting would continue until the last minute, of the last day.

The German King, Kaiser Wilhelm, abdicated on the 10th, as riots broke out in the streets of Germany. The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11, and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

The order went out to that effect. The war would be over in hours, but there were no other instructions.

Some field commanders ordered their men to stand down. Why fight and die over ground they could walk over, in a few hours?The last six hours

Many continued the attack, believing that Germany had to be well and truly beaten. Others saw their last chance at glory or promotion. An artillery captain named Harry S Truman, kept his battery firing until only minutes before 11:00.

English teacher turned Major General Charles Summerall had a fondness for the turn of phrase. Ordering his subordinates across the Meuse River in those final hours, Summerall said “We are swinging the door by its hinges. It has got to move…Get into action and get across. I don’t expect to see any of you again…

No fewer than 320 Americans were killed in those final six hours, another 3,240 seriously wounded.

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Still smarting from the disastrous defeat at Mons back in 1914, British High Command was determined to take the place back, on the final day of the war. The British Empire lost more than 2,400 in those last 6 hours.

The French 80th Régiment d’Infanterie received two orders that morning – to launch an attack at 9:00, and cease-fire at 11:00. French losses for the final day amounted to 1,170. The already retreating Germans suffered 4,120.

One-hundred years ago today, all sides suffered over 11,000 dead, wounded, and missing in those final six hours. Some have estimated that more men died per hour after the signing of the armistice, than during the D-Day invasion, 26 years later.

Over in the Meuse-Argonne sector, Henry Gunther was “visibly angry”.   Perhaps this American grandson of German immigrants felt he had something to prove.  Anti-German bias had not reached levels of the next war, when President Roosevelt interned Americans of Japanese descent.  Yet, such bias was very real.  Gunther’s fiancé had already broken up with him, and he’d recently been busted in rank, after writing home complaining about conditions at the front.

Bayonet fixed, Gunther charged the enemy machine gun position, as German soldiers frantically waved and yelled for him, to go back. He got off a “shot or two”, before the five round burst tore into his head. Henry Nicholas John Gunther of Baltimore Maryland, was the last man to die in combat, in the Great War.  It was 10:59am.  The war would be over, in sixty seconds.

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After eight months on the front lines of France, Corporal Joe Rodier of Worcester Massachusetts, was jubilant.   “Another day of days“.   Rodier wrote in his diary.  “Armistice signed with Germany to take effect at 11 a.m. this date. Great manifestations. Town lighted up at night. Everybody drunk, even to the dog. Moonlight, cool night & not a shot heard“.

Matthias Erzberger was assassinated in 1921, for his role in the surrender. The “Stab in the Back” mythology destined to become Nazi propaganda, had already begun.

AEF Commander General John “Black Jack” Pershing believed the armistice to be a grave error. He believed that Germany had been defeated but not beaten, and that failure to smash the German homeland meant that the war would have to be fought, all over again. Ferdinand Foch agreed. On reading the Versailles treaty in 1919, Foch said “This isn’t peace! This is a truce that will last for 20 years”.

The man got it wrong, by 36 days.

A personal note:

PFC Norman Franklin Long was wounded during the Great War, a member of the United States Army, 33rd Pennsylvania Infantry.  He left us on December 18, 1963, only hours before his namesake and my brother Norm, was born.

My father’s father went to his final rest on Christmas eve of 1963, in Arlington National Cemetery. 

Lt. Col. Richard B “Rick” Long Sr. served during the Vietnam era and earned his eternal rest at the Sandhills Veteran’s Cemetery, in North Carolina.

Rest in peace Grampa, Dad, you left us too soon.

Norm and my other brother Dave went on to serve over 50 years between them and both retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Respect and gratitude for your service, gentlemen.

October 26, 1918 Speaking in Code

The history of the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII is relatively well known.  A number of books have been written about the subject.  Less well known is the code talk emerging from World War 1, based on the language of the Choctaw.

Between 1942 and 1945, “code talkers” of the Navajo Nation took part in every assault conducted by the United States Marine Corps. From Guadalcanal to Tarawa, Peleliu to Iwo Jima, Navajo code talkers served with all six Marine divisions in the Pacific theater, of World War 2.

Theirs was a language with no alphabet or symbols, a language with such complex syntax and tonal qualities as to be unintelligible to the non-speaker.  The military code based on such a language proved unbreakable in WWII.  Japanese code breakers never got close.

The history of the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII is relatively well known.  A number of books have been written about the subject.  Less well known is the code talk emerging from World War 1, based on the language of the Choctaw.

The government of the Choctaw Nation will tell you that they were the first native code talkers who ever served in the United States military.

Late in 1917, Colonel A. W. Bloor was serving in France with the 142nd Infantry Regiment.  This was a Texas outfit, constituted in May of that year and including a number of Oklahoma Choctaws.

Choctaw code talkers

By now the Allies had learned the hard way, that many among the German adversary spoke excellent English.  German code breakers had intercepted and broken several English-based codes. 

Bloor heard two of his Choctaw soldiers talking to each other, and realized he didn’t have the foggiest notion of what they were saying.  If he didn’t understand their conversation he thought, no German could possibly have a clue.

The first test under combat conditions took place on October 26, 1918, as two companies of the 2nd Battalion performed a “delicate” withdrawal from Chufilly to Chardeny, in the Champagne sector.  One captured German officer avowed the Choctaw code to have been a complete success.  We were “completely confused by the Indian language”, he said, “and gained no benefit whatsoever” from wiretaps.

Choctaw soldiers were placed in multiple companies of infantry.  Messages were transmitted via telephone, radio and runner, many of whom were themselves Native Americans.

The Choctaw would improvise when their language lacked the proper word or phrase.  When describing artillery, they used the words for “big gun”.  Machine guns were “little gun shoot fast”.

The Choctaw themselves didn’t use the term “Code Talker”, that wouldn’t come along until WWII.  At least one member of the group, Tobias W. Frazier, described what he did as, “talking on the radio”.  Of the 19 who served in WWI, 18 were native Choctaw from southeast Oklahoma.  The last was a native Chickasaw. 

Youngest of the group was Benjamin Franklin Colbert, Jr., the son of Benjamin Colbert Sr., one of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” of the Spanish American War.  Born September 15, 1900 in the Durant Indian Territory, he was 16 the day he enlisted.

Joseph Oklahombi
Joseph Oklahombi

Another was Choctaw Joseph Oklahombi, whose name means “man killer” in the Choctaw language.    

Six days before Sergeant York’s famous capture of 132 in the Argonne Forest, Joseph Oklahombi charged a strongly held German position, single-handed.  Oklahombi’s Croix de Guerre citation, personally awarded by French Marshall Philippe Pétain, tells the story:  “Under a violent barrage, [Pvt. Oklahombi] dashed to the attack of an enemy position, covering about 210 yards through barbed-wire entanglements. He rushed on machine-gun nests, capturing 171 prisoners. He stormed a strongly held position containing more than 50 machine guns, and a number of trench mortars. Turned the captured guns on the enemy, and held the position for four days, in spite of a constant barrage of large projectiles and of gas shells. Crossed no man’s land many times to get information concerning the enemy, and to assist his wounded comrades“.

Unconfirmed eyewitness accounts report that some 250 Germans occupied the position, and that Oklahombi killed 79 of them before their comrades decided it was wiser to surrender. 

Some guys are not to be trifled with.

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September 23, 1916 The Lafayette Escadrille

38 American pilots passed through the Lafayette Escadrille, “the Valiant 38”, eleven of whom were either killed in action or died later as the result of wounds received.

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Norman Prince

Knowing that his father would never approve, Norman Prince of Beverly Massachusetts trained to fly, in secret.  Using the name George Manor,  Prince earned his wings in 1911 in the Quincy, Massachusetts neighborhood of Squantum.

A fluent French speaker with a family estate in Pau, France, Norman sailed in January 1915, to join the French war effort.

The earliest vestiges of the American Hospital of Paris and what would become the American Ambulance Field Service can be discovered five years earlier, in 1906. Long before the American entry in 1917, individual sympathies brought Americans into the war to fight for Britain and France. They traveled to Europe to fight the Axis Powers joining the Foreign Legion, the Flying Corps or, like Ernest Hemingway, the Ambulance Service.

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Squadron Insignia pin

After 1915, American pilots volunteered for multiple “Escadrille” – flight squadrons of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire.

The March 7, 1918 Harvard Alumni Bulletin would give Norman Prince full credit for persuading the French government to form all-American flying squadrons.

Prince would not live to see the article, in print.

Sergeant Norman Prince caught a landing wheel on a telegraph wire after a bombing run on October 12, 1916, sustaining massive injuries when his plane flipped over and crashed.  He was promoted to sous (2nd) lieutenant on his death bed and awarded the Legion of Honor.  He died three days later, at the age of 29.

William Thaw II of Pittsburgh was the first pilot to fly up New York’s East River under all four bridges, the first American engaged in aerial combat in the war.

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Lt. Col. William Thaw II with lion cub mascots Whiskey and Soda

Thaw pooled his money with three other pilots to purchase a male lion cub, the first of two such mascots kept by the Escadrille.  He bought the lion from a Brazilian dentist for 500 francs and bought a dog ticket, walking the lion onto the train on a leash.

Explanations that this was an “African dog” proved less than persuasive. The pair was thrown off the train.  The escadrille’s new mascot “Whiskey” would have to ride to his new home in a cage, stuck in cargo.

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The unit purchased a female lion, “Soda”, sometime later.  The lions were destined to spend their adult years in a Paris zoo but both remembered from whence they had come.  Both animals recognized William Thaw on a later visit to the zoo, rolling onto their backs in expectation of a good belly rub.

French Lieutenant Colonel Georges Thenault owned a “splendid police dog” named Fram who was the best buddies with Whiskey, though he did learn to keep to himself at dinner time.

Originally authorized on March 21, 1916 as the Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124), American pilots wore French uniforms and flew French aircraft.  Germany was dismayed nevertheless at the existence of such a unit, complaining that the neutral United States appeared to be aligning with France.

Lafayette Escadrille

Escadrille N.124 changed its name in December 1916, adopting that of a French hero of the American Revolution.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

Five French officers commanded a core group of 38 American volunteers, supported by all-French mechanics and ground crew.  Rounding out the Escadrille were the unit mascots, the African lions Whiskey and Soda.

This early in aviation history, flying duty was hazardous to say the least.  Planes were flimsy and plagued with mechanical difficulties. Machine guns jammed and other parts failed when they were needed most.  There were countless wounds in addition to fatal injuries. At least one man actually asked to be sent back to the trenches. He felt safer there.

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Kiffin Rockwell

The first major action of the Escadrille Américaine took place at the Battle of Verdun on May 13, 1916.

Kiffin Rockwell of Newport Tennessee became the first American to shoot down an enemy aircraft on May 18, 1916. On September 23, Rockwell was engaged with a German Albatross observation aircraft when he received an explosive bullet to the chest. The first American aviator to shoot down an enemy aircraft was killed immediately and crashed between the first and second lines of French trenches, the second American aviator killed in the war to end all wars.

French born American citizen Raoul Lufbery became the squadron’s first Ace with 5 confirmed kills, and went on to be the highest scoring flying ace in the unit with 17 confirmed victories. He was killed on May 19, 1918 when his Nieuport 28 flipped over while he attempted to clear a jam in his machine gun.

The unit sustained its first fatality on June 24, 1916 when Victor Chapman was attacked by German flying ace Leutnant Kurt Wintgens, north of Douaumont.  Chapman was carrying oranges at the time, intended for his buddy Clyde Balsley, who was in hospital recuperating from an earlier incident.

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Edmond Genet

Ossining, New York native Edmond Genet was a bit of a celebrity among American expats, as the second-great grandson of Edmond-Charles Genêt, of the Founding-era Citizen Genêt Affair.  Genet sailed for France at the end of January 1915, joining the French Foreign Legion, and finally the Lafayette Escadrille on January 22, 1917.

Genet had left while on leave from the US Navy, and was therefore classified as a deserter. The decision weighed heavily on him.  Edmond Genet was shot down and killed by anti-aircraft artillery on April 17, eleven days after the American declaration of war, officially making him the first American fatality in the War to end all Wars.  The war department sent his family a letter after his death, stating that his service was considered in all respects, honorable.

38 American pilots passed through the Lafayette Escadrille, “the Valiant 38”, eleven of whom were either killed in action or died later as the result of wounds received.  The unit flew for the French Air Service until the US’ entry into the war, when it passed into the 103rd Aero Squadron, American Expeditionary Force.

Raoul Lufbery
Raoul Lufbery

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.  The Flying Corps was different from the Escadrille, the former coming about as the result of widespread interest in the exploits of the latter.  American volunteers were assigned individually or in groups of two or three to fly in various French Aviation units, but, prior to US entry into the war.  The Lafayette Escadrille was the only one to serve as a single organization.

All told, 267 American volunteers applied to serve in the Lafayette Flying Corps, credited with downing 199 German planes at the cost of 19 wounded, 15 captured, 11 dead of illness or accident, and 51 killed in action.

August 25, 1830 A Scrap of Paper

The story of how a night at the opera led to two world wars.

In 1830, what is now Belgium was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, a fusion of territories brought about in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars once belonging to the Dutch Republic, Austrian Netherlands, and Prince-Bishopric of Liège. A Constitutional Monarchy,  ruled by the first King of the Netherlands, King William I.

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The “Southern Provinces” of King William’s polity were almost all Catholic and mostly French speaking, in contrast with the Dutch speaking, mostly Protestant north. 

Many southern liberals of the time thought King William a despot and tyrant. Meanwhile high levels of industrial unemployment made for widespread unrest among the working classes.

La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) is an opera in five acts by Daniel Auber.  Generally recognized as the earliest of the French Grand Opera, La Muette was first performed at the Paris Opéra on February 29, 1828.   During one performance a riot broke out during a particularly patriotic duet, Amour sacré de la patrie, (Sacred love of Fatherland). 

It was August 25, 1830.

Soon the melee was spilling out onto the street, a full-scale riot spreading across Brussels and igniting other riots as shops were looted, factories occupied and machinery destroyed.

King William committed troops to the southern provinces in an effort to restore order, while radicals asserted control of rioting factions and began talk of secession.  Meanwhile Dutch military units experienced massive desertion of recruits from the southern provinces, and had to pull out.

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Leopold I, 1st King of the Belgians

The States-General in Brussels voted in favor of secession and declared independence, assembling a National Congress while King William appealed to the Great Powers for help. The resulting 1830 London Conference of major European powers came to recognize Belgian independence. Leopold I was installed as “King of the Belgians”.

King William made one more attempt to reconquer Belgium, in 1831.  France intervened with troops of its own and the “Ten Days’ Campaign” ended in failure.  The European powers signed the “Treaty of London” in 1839, recognizing and guaranteeing Belgium’s independence and neutrality.

By this instrument Great Britain, Austria, France, the German Confederation led by Prussia, Russia and the Netherlands had formally recognized the independent Kingdom of Belgium.

The German Composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner remarked on the events decades later, saying that “[S]eldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world-event”.

In 1914, Germany’s plan in the event of war could be likened to one guy against two in a bar fight.  The plan was to take out the nearer one first (France), before turning to face the slow-moving behemoth, of Imperial Russia.  The only obstacles were the neutral states of Belgium, and Luxembourg.

Believing Great Britain would remain on the sidelines, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany declared war on Belgium on August 4, beginning a great sweep through Belgian territory into France. The government of British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith would never honor that “scrap of paper” signed back in 1839.

In this German assumptions were grievously mistaken.  Great Britain declared war within hours of the German invasion.

A regional squabble begun that June with the assassination of an Archduke would plunge the world into war, in August. Two world wars, really, with a 20-year break to grow a new generation, in-between.

August 3, 1914 Apocalypse

This time there would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII.   Few could imagine a cataclysm to rock a century and beyond, a war in which many single day’s fighting would produce casualties equal to that of every war of the preceding 100 years, combined.  Fewer still understood on this date, one-hundred eight years ago, today.  The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, had arrived.

In 1869, Germany had yet to come into its own as an independent nation. Forty-five years later she was one of the Great Powers, of Europe.

Great Powers, 1914

Alarmed by the aggressive growth of her historic adversary, the French government had by that time increased compulsory military service from two years to three, in an effort to offset the German’s military of a much larger population.

Joseph Caillaux was a left wing politician, once Prime Minister of France and, by 1913, a cabinet minister under the more conservative administration of French President Raymond Poincare.

Never too discreet with his personal conduct, Caillaux paraded through public life with a succession of women, who were not Mrs Caillaux. One of them was Henriette Raynouard.  By 1911, Madame Raynouard had become the second Mrs Caillaux.

A relative pacifist, many on the French right considered Caillaux to be too “soft” on Germany. One of them was Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading right-wing newspaper Le Figaro, who regularly excoriated the politician.

On March 16, 1914, Madame Caillaux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. She waited for a full hour to see the paper’s editor, before walking into his office and shooting him at his desk. Four out of six rounds hit their mark.  Gaston Calmette was dead before the night was through.

Cailloux Affair

It was the crime of the century.  This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious details anyone could ever ask for. It was the OJ trial, version 1.0, and the French public was transfixed.

The British public was similarly distracted, by the latest in a series of Irish Home Rule crises.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire, a sprawling amalgamation of 17 nations, 20 Parliamentary groups and 27 political parties, desperately needed to bring the Balkan peninsula into line following the June 28 assassination of the heir apparent to the dual monarchy. That individual Serbians were complicit in the assassination is beyond doubt but so many government records of the era have disappeared that, it’s impossible to determine official Serbian complicity. Nevertheless, Serbia had to be brought to heel.

Balkan Troubles

Having given Austria his personal assurance of support in the event of war with Serbia, even if Russia entered in support of her Slavic ally, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany left on a summer cruise in the Norwegian fjords. The Kaiser’s being out of touch for those critical days that July has been called the most expensive maritime disaster, in naval history.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire delivered a deliberately unacceptable ultimatum to Serbia on the 23rd, little more that a bald pretext for war.  Czar Nicholas wired Vienna as late as the 27th proposing an international conference concerning Serbia, but to no avail. Austria responded that same day.  It was too late for such a proposal.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia the following day, the day on which Madame Caillaux was acquitted of the murder of Gaston Calmette, on the grounds of being a “crime of passion”.

As expected, Russia mobilized in support of Serbia.  For Germany’s part, nothing was to be feared more than a two-front war with the “Russian Steamroller” to the east, and the French Republic to the west.  Germany invaded neutral Belgium in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which she sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the far larger Russian adversary.

russ-mob

On August 3, 1914, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey announced before Parliament his government’s intention to defend Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation German diplomats had dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

Pre-planned timetables took over – France alone would have 3,781,000 military men under orders before the middle of August, arriving at the western front on 7,000 trains arriving as often as every eight minutes.

Declaration

This time there would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII.   Few could imagine a cataclysm to rock a century and beyond, a war in which many single day’s fighting would produce casualties equal to that of every war of the preceding 100 years, combined.  Fewer still understood on this date, one-hundred eight years ago, today.  The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, had arrived.

Sir Edward Grey

July 31, 1917 Passchendaele

“My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light”
Siegfried Sassoon, Memorial Tablet

The “War to end all Wars” exploded across the European continent in the summer of 1914, devolving into the stalemate of trench warfare, by October.

The ‘Great War’ became Total War, the following year.  1915 saw the first use of asphyxiating gas, first at Bolimow in Poland, and later (and more famously) near the Belgian village of Ypres.  Ottoman deportation of its Armenian minority led to the systematic extermination of an ethnic minority, resulting in the death of ¾ of an estimated 2 million Armenians living in the Empire at that time. For the first time and far from the last an unsuspecting world heard the term, genocide‘.

Battle-of-Passchendaele
Battle of Passchendaele

Kaiser Wilhelm responded to the Royal Navy’s near-stranglehold on surface shipping with a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, as the first zeppelin raids were carried out against the British mainland.  German forces adopted a defensive strategy on the western front, developing the most sophisticated defensive capabilities of the war and determined to “bleed France white”, while concentrating on defeating Czarist Russia.

Russian Czar Nicholas II took personal command that September, following catastrophic losses in Galicia and Poland.  Austro-German offensives resulted in 1.4 million Russian casualties by September with another 750,000 captured, spurring a “Great Retreat” of Russian forces in the east and resulting in political and social unrest which would topple the Imperial government, fewer than two years later.   In December 1915, British and ANZAC forces broke off a meaningless stalemate on the Gallipoli peninsula, beginning the evacuation of some 83,000 survivors.  The disastrous offensive produced some 250,000 casualties.  The Gallipoli campaign was remembered as a great Ottoman victory, a defining moment in Turkish history.  For now, Turkish troops held their fire in the face of the allied withdrawal, happy to see them leave.

The-third-battle-of-Ypres-1917-9
Passchendaele, 1917

A single day’s fighting in the great battles of 1916 could produce more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, civilian and military, combined. Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded while vast stretches of the Western European countryside were literally torn to pieces.

1917 saw the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, and a German invitation to bring Mexico into the war, against the United States.  As expected, these policies brought America into the war on the allied side.  The President who won re-election for being ‘too proud to fight’ asked for a congressional declaration of war, that April.

Sealed Train

Massive French losses stemming from the failed Nivelle offensive of that same month (French casualties were fully ten times what was expected) combined with irrational expectations that American forces would materialize on the western front led to massive unrest in the French lines.  Fully one-half of all French forces on the western front mutinied.  It’s one of the great miracles of WW1 that the German side never knew, else the conflict may have ended, very differently.

The sealed train carrying the plague bacillus of communism had already entered the Russian body politic.  Nicholas II, Emperor of all Russia, was overthrown and murdered that July, along with his wife, children, servants and a few loyal friends, and their dogs.

This was the situation in July 1917.

third-battle-of-ypres-passchendaele-ww1-007For eighteen months, British miners worked to dig tunnels under Messines Ridge, the German defensive works laid out around the Belgian town of Ypres.  Nearly a million pounds of high explosive were placed in some 2,000′ of tunnels, dug 100′ deep.  10,000 German soldiers ceased to exist at 3:10am local time on June 7, in a blast that could be heard as far away, as London.

Buoyed by this success and eager to destroy the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast, General Sir Douglas Haig planned an assault from the British-held Ypres salient, near the village of Passchendaele.

general

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George opposed the offensive, as did the French Chief of the General Staff, General Ferdinand Foch, both preferring to await the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  Historians have argued the wisdom of the move, ever since.

The third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, began in the early morning hours of July 31, 1917. The next 105 days would be fought under some of the most hideous conditions, of the entire war.

In the ten days leading up to the attack, some 3,000 guns fired an estimated 4½ million shells into German lines, pulverizing whole forests and smashing water control structures in the lowland plains.  Several days into the attack, Ypres suffered the heaviest rainfall, in thirty years.

pillbox
German pillbox, following capture by Canadian soldiers.

Conditions defy description. Time and again the clay soil, the water, the shattered remnants of once-great forests and the bodies of the slain were churned up and pulverized by shellfire.  You couldn’t call the stuff these people lived and fought in mud – it was more like a thick slime, a clinging, sucking ooze, capable of swallowing grown men, even horses and mules.  Most of the offensive took place across a broad plain formerly crisscrossed with canals, but now a great, sucking mire in which the only solid ground seemed to be German positions, from which machine guns cut down sodden commonwealth soldiers, as with a scythe.

Soldiers begged for their friends to shoot them, rather than being left to sink in that muck. One sank up to his neck and slowly went stark raving mad, as he died of thirst. British soldier Charles Miles wrote “It was worse when the mud didn’t suck you down; when it yielded under your feet you knew that it was a body you were treading on.”

Passchendaele, aerial
Passchendaele, before and after the offensive. H/T Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

In 105 days of this hell, Commonwealth forces lost 275,000 killed, wounded and missing.  The German side another 200,000.  90,000 bodies were never identified.  42,000 were never recovered and remain there, to this day.  All for five miles of mud and a village barely recognizable, following capture.

Following the battle of Passchendaele, staff officer Sir Launcelot Kiggell is said to have broken down in tears.  “Good God”, he said, “Did we really send men to fight in That”?! 

The soldier-turned war poet Siegfried Sassoon reveals the bitterness of the average “Joe Squaddy”, sent by his government to fight and die, at Passchendaele.  The story is told in the first person by a dead man, in all the bitterness of which a poet decorated for bravery and later shot in the head by his own side, is capable.  It’s called:

Memorial Tablet

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,  
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—  
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,  
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell  
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.  

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,  
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:  
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;  
‘In proud and glorious memory’… that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:  
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.  
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…  
What greater glory could a man desire?

July 28, 1932 The Bonus Expeditionary Force

It was a “pitiful spectacle, the mightiest government in the world chasing unarmed men, women, and children with Army tanks. If the Army must be called out to make war on unarmed citizens, this is no longer America.”

Washington Daily News

In 1924 the United States Congress passed the “World War Adjusted Compensation Act”, awarding cash bonuses to veterans of the “Great War”, in which the United States had been involved between 1917 and 1918.

3,662,374 military service certificates were issued to qualifying veterans, bearing a face value equal to $1 per day of domestic service and $1.25 a day for overseas service, plus interest. The total face value of these certificates was $3.638 billion, equivalent to $43.7 billion in today’s dollars and payable to each veteran or his estate upon his birthday, in 1945.

The Great Depression was two years old in 1932, and thousands of veterans had been out of work since the beginning. Certificate holders could borrow up to 50% of the face value of their service certificates, but direct funds were unavailable for another 13 years.

WWI veterans began to arrive in Washington on May 29 to press their case for immediate cash redemption. Veterans set up encampments between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial and around Washington DC, led by former US Army sergeant Walter W. Waters. They were the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” named after the American Expeditionary Force of WWI, though it’s unclear if that’s what they called themselves or a term of derision, used by opponents. The media of the day called them, the “Bonus Army”.

This had all had happened before. Hundreds of Pennsylvania veterans of the Revolution marched on Washington in 1783, after the Continental Army was disbanded without pay.

The Congress fled to Princeton New Jersey on that occasion, and the Army was called up to expel these war veterans from the Capital. Washington, DC was later excluded from the restrictions of the Posse Comitatus Act, making it the only part of the United States where the military can be used for domestic police activity.

17,000 veterans and their families, 43,000 all told, gathered in and around Washington: men, women and children living in tents or in make-shift shelters built out of old lumber, packing boxes and even scrap tin, scavenged from nearby junkyards.

With unemployment at 24 percent, Congressman Wright Patman (D-TX), himself a WW1 veteran, introduced a bill before the House of Representative to make $2.4 billion available, immediately. On June 15, Congressman Edward Eslick (D-TN) literally had a heart attack and died, in the middle of his address.

In the end the House passed the bill which then went over to the Senate for a vote, on June 17. One newspaper described it as “the tensest day in the capital since the war.” 10,000 marchers crowding the Capitol grounds responded with stunned silence when they got the news. The Senate had voted it down, 62 to 18.

On July 13, 1932, Brig. Gen. Pelham D. Glassford, superintendent of the Washington, D.C., police, asked a group of war veterans on the Capitol grounds to raise their hands if they had served in France and were 100 percent American.

“Sing America and go back to your billets” Waters said, and so they did. Marchers would hold a silent vigil in front of the Capitol, a “death march”, until July 17. The day the Congress adjourned.

Marchers were in their camps on July 28 when Attorney General William Mitchell ordered them evicted. Two policemen became trapped on the second floor of a building when they drew their revolvers and shot two veterans, William Hushka and Eric Carlson, both of whom died of their injuries. Two police officers were also killed in the ensuing protests.

President Hoover ordered the Army under General Douglas MacArthur to evict the Bonus Army from Washington. 500 Cavalry formed up on Pennsylvania Avenue at 4:45pm supported by 500 Infantry, 800 police and six battle tanks under the command of then-Major George S. Patton. Civil Service employees came out to watch as bonus marchers cheered, thinking that the Army had gathered in their support. And then the Cavalry was ordered to charge. The infantry followed with tear gas and fixed bayonets, entering the camps and evicting men, women and children alike.

It was a “pitiful spectacle, the mightiest government in the world chasing unarmed men, women, and children with Army tanks. If the Army must be called out to make war on unarmed citizens, this is no longer America.”

Washington Daily News

Bonus marchers fled to their largest encampment across the Anacostia River, when President Hoover ordered the assault stopped. Believing that the Bonus March was an attempt to overthrow the government, General MacArthur ignored the President and ordered a new attack, the army routing 10,000 and leaving their camps in flames.

1,017 were injured and 135 arrested. The wife of one veteran miscarried. 12 week old Bernard Myers died after being caught in the gas attack. A government investigation later claimed he died of inflammation of the small intestine, but a hospital employee said the tear gas “didn’t do it any good.”

Then-Major Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of MacArthur’s aides at the time. Eisenhower believed that it was wrong for the Army’s highest ranking officer to lead an action against fellow war veterans. Characteristically blunt he said “I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch not to go down there”.

The bonus march debacle doomed any hope Herbert Hoover had for re-election. Franklin Delano Roosevelt opposed the veterans’ bonus demands during the election, but was able to negotiate a solution when veterans organized a second demonstration in 1933. Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor was instrumental in these negotiations, leading one veteran to comment: “Hoover sent the army, Roosevelt sent his wife”.

July 19, 1916 The Red Zone

“The Zone Rouge is a 42,000-acre territory that, nearly a century after the conflict, has no human residents and only allows limited access”. – National Geographic

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire may have led to nothing more than a regional squabble.  Little more than a policing action, in the Balkans.  As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances drew the Great Powers of Europe into the vortex.  On August 3, the “War to End Wars” exploded across the European continent.

The early 20th century has been called the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”, and for good reason.   As the diplomatic wrangling, mobilizations and counter-mobilizations of the “period preparatory to war” advanced through July, 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton made the final arrangements for his third expedition into the Antarctic.   Despite the outbreak of war, 1st Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill ordered Shackleton to proceed.  The “Endurance” expedition” departed British waters on August 8.

The German invasion of France ground to a halt that September.  The first entrenchments were being dug as Shackleton himself remained in England, departing on September 27 to meet up with the Endurance expedition in Buenos Aires.

Endurance was destined to be stuck in the ice, stranding the men of the Shackleton Expedition floating on pack ice, in open ocean.

As the unofficial Christmas Truce descended over the trenches of Europe, Shackleton’s expedition slowly picked their way through the ice floes of the Weddell Sea.

The disaster of WWI became “Total War” with the zeppelin raids of January, as Endurance met with disaster of her own.  The ship was frozen fast, with no hope of escape.  As the nine-month battle unfolded across the Gallipoli Peninsula, Shackleton’s men abandoned ship’s routine and converted to winter station.  Finally, camps were set up across the drifting ice.  On November 21, the wreck of the Endurance slipped below the surface.

shackleton_stamps

In December 1915, Allies began preparations for a summer offensive along the upper reaches of the river Somme.  In February, Erich von Falkenhayn began an offensive in Verdun designed to “bleed France white”. The Shackleton party was at this time camped on an ice pack, adrift in open ocean. 

The ice began to break up that April, forcing Shackleton and his party into three small lifeboats.  Five brutal days would come and go in those open boats, the last of 457 days spent at sea before finally reaching the desolate shores of Elephant Island.

The whaling station at South Georgia Island some 720 miles distant, was the nearest outpost of civilization. The only hope for survival. Shackleton and a party of five set out on April 24 in a 20-foot lifeboat.  They shouldn’t have made it, but somehow did.  In hurricane-force winds, the cliffs of South Georgia Island came into view four weeks later.

Scaling those terrible cliffs alone was a survival epic, worthy of its own story. Somehow, not a man was lost. They must have been a sight, with thick ice encrusting long, filthy beards, saltwater-soaked sealskin clothing rotting from their bodies.  The first people they came across were children, who ran in fright at the sight of them.  At last, on May 20, 1916, the Shackleton expedition was saved.

Like a latter-day Robinson Crusoe emerged from the frozen wastes of the Antarctic, Shackleton asked for news on the war. How it had all ended.  The response came back as if every word of it, was a hammer blow.  

“The war isn’t over.  Millions are dead.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad”.

Preparatory bombardment for the Somme offensive began that June, 1,500 guns firing 1.7 million shells into a twelve-mile front.  27 shells for every foot of the front.  Allies went “over the top” on July 1, the single worst day in British military history.  19,240 British soldiers were killed in that single day, along with 1,590 French.  German losses numbered 10,000–12,000.  By July 19, 1916, the Somme offensive was just getting started.  The battle would last another 122 days.

Former battlefield at Dououmont. The sign reads “Danger Access Forbidden”

The toll exacted by the 1st World War was cataclysmic in human, economic and environmental terms.  After the war, hundreds of square miles along the north of France were identified, thusly:

“Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible”.

Vast quantities of human and animal remains permeate this “Zone Rouge”, an area saturated with unexploded shells and munitions of all sizes and types:  gas, high explosive, anti-personnel.  There are hand grenades and bombs, small arms and rusted ammunition, by the truckload.

Lochnagar Crater
Lochnagar bomb crater in the Somme Photo Credit Telegraph Newspaper: HENRY SAMUEL

Lead, mercury, chlorine, arsenic and other toxins permeate the soil.  In two areas near Ypres and Woëvre, arsenic constitutes up to 17% of some soil samples.  The Red Zone is smaller today than it once was but, to this day, 99% of all plants still die in some of these places.

During World War 1 the two sides fired an estimated ton of explosives at each other, for every square meter of the western Front. As many as one in three shells failed to explode. The Ypres salient alone was believed to contain as many as 300 million unexploded shells at the war’s end. 87 years after the cessation of hostilities, one “Red Zone” survey uncovered up to 150 shells per 5,000 square meters in the top six inches of soil, alone.  

By means of comparison, an American football field covers 5,351.215 square meters.

Signs like this dot the landscape in parts of France and Belgium: “Village Destroyed”

100 years after WW1, more than 20 members of Belgian Explosive Ordnance Disposal (DOVO) were killed in 1998, alone.

In June 2016, head of the bomb disposal unit at Amiens Michel Colling, said: “Since the start of the year we’ve been called out 300 times to dispose of 25 tons of bombs.  As soon as you start turning the earth up”, Colling said, “you find them. At this rate, we have another 500 years to clear the area, so the work is far from over.

The rotor blades from farmers’ tractors sometimes set them off.   In June 2016, farmer Claude Samain plowed up a Lee-Enfield rifle. Last held in all probability by a British infantryman, the rifle was now seeing the sun for the first time, in 100 years. He placed it on a pile rusted old shells and ironworks. As a farm kid of the 1930s, Claude remembered turning up bodies in his fields.  ‘We find shells every time we turn the earth over for potatoes or sugar beet.” he explained.

French farmers call the stuff, récolte de fer. Iron harvest.

800px-Red_Zone_Map-fr
By derivative work: Tinodela (talk)Zone_rougeRed_Zone_Map.jpg: Lamiot – Zone_rougeRed_Zone_Map.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4798391

That part about Claud Samain comes from a Mirror story published July 1, 2016 and written, by Andy Lines. “As Claude, 76, passed me the gun” Lines writes, “he smiled: “You Brits are so respectful of what happened here on the Somme. “Three coachloads of children arrive every single day to learn what happened 100 years ago – you never see any French children.””

Nor I would guess, any American children, and that’s a damned shame.

May 3, 1915 Keeping the Faith

“Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.”. – Moina Michael

800px-Lieut.-Col._John_McCrae,_M.D.
Dr. John McCrae

John McCrae was a physician and amateur poet from Guelph, Ontario. Following the outbreak of the “Great War” in 1914, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41.

Based on his age and training, Dr. McCrae could have joined the medical corps, but volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as gunner and medical officer.

McCrae had previously served in the Boer War.  This was to be his second tour of duty in the Canadian military.

Dr. McCrae fought in one of the most horrendous battles of the Great War, the second battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium. Imperial Germany launched the first mass chemical attack in history at Ypres, attacking the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915. The Canadian line was broken but quickly reformed in an apocalyptic bloodletting lasting more than two full weeks.

Dr. McCrae later described the ordeal, in a letter to his mother:

“For seventeen days and seventeen nights”, he wrote, “none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … and behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way”.

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Stop and imagine for a moment please, what this looked like, what this horror smelled like, in color.

Dr. McCrae presided over the funeral of friend on May 3, fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who had died in the battle. McCrae performed the burial service himself when he noted how quickly the red poppies grew on the graves of the fallen. Sitting in the back of a medical field ambulance just north of Ypres, he composed this poem, the following day.  He called the verse, “We Shall Not Sleep”. 

Today we remember Dr. McCrae’s work as:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Moina Michael

Moina Belle Michael was born August 15, 1869 near Good Hope Georgia, about an hour’s drive east of Atlanta. She began teaching at age fifteen. Over a long career Michael worked in nearly every part of the Peach State’s education system.

In 1918 she was working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters, in New York.  Browsing through the November Ladies Home Journal Moina came across Dr. McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918. 

Two days before the armistice.

John McCrae lay in his own grave by this time, having succumbed to pneumonia while serving in the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, in Boulogne.  He was buried with full military honors at the Wimereux cemetery where his gravestone lies flat, due to the sandy, unstable soil.

49a1160c9141869ce025a820a599ef56--flanders-field-lest-we-forget

Michael had seen McCrae’s poem before but it got to her this time, especially that last part:

  “If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields”

Moina was so moved she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy, in honor of the dead. She scribbled a response, an ode to an act of remembrance on the back, of a used envelope.  She called it:

We Shall Keep the Faith

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

The vivid red flower blooming on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli came to symbolize the staggering loss of life brought about by the Great War, the “War to End all Wars”. Before they had numbers, this was a war where the death toll from many single day’s fighting exceeded that of every war of the preceding century, military and civilian, combined.

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A century and more has come and gone since the events, told in this story. The red poppy is now an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance, lest we neglect to remember the lives lost in All wars. I keep one always, pinned to the visor of my car. It’s a reminder of where we come from, the prices paid to bring us to this place and to always keep the faith, with those who have come before.

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