The Great War's last link dies, but its legacy lingers still
By JAYSON JACOBY
Almost the whole of a century has elapsed and at last our final, feeble human link to the Great War has been cut.
The war is history, officially and irretrievably so.
The Methuselah’s name is Frank Buckles.
He died Feb. 27 at the improbable age of 110.
Buckles, who lied to a recruiter about his age to enlist in the Army in 1917 (he claimed he was 18 when he was in fact 16ﬁ), was the last surviving American veteran of the catastrophe we now call World War I.
(That moniker, “Great War,” initially attached to the 1914-18 conflict, lost its luster, so to speak, when Hitler’s blitzkrieg pounced on Poland in 1939 and unleashed a far greater hemorrhage of both blood and treasure.)
A conventional reaction to a milestone such as Buckles’ death is to wonder whether our collective memory of the distant event will now begin to wither more rapidly.
I doubt this.
The reason is that World War I was relegated decades ago to a sort of historical purgatory — not so ancient as, say, the Peloponnesian War, but no more relevant to today’s problems than is the War of 1812.
This diminution of World War I’s prominence doesn’t trouble me, particularly.
For one thing, our assembled knowledge of the war is in no jeopardy, even as our interest in the event continues its long waning.
The bibliography of World War I is an immense thing, one measured, quite literally, in the tens of millions of words.
The war has a significant presence on the Internet, as well. (And how anachronistic the war seems in that realm. High-tech then meant grainy, silent film of soldiers charging, in herky-jerky fashion, across a wasteland pockmarked by shell holes. Today every middle schooler has a cell phone that takes high-definition video.)
There will be no scarcity of information to sift through, suffice it to say, should the war, as wars are wont to do, enjoy a future revival among historians, or even the general public.
Secondly, it seems to me that we already have, in the main, gleaned from the war its most vital lessons.
Most importantly, we place a greater value on human life, and in particular the lives of our military, than we did then.
This might at first blush seem a silly thing to say.
In 1918 we had no atomic weapons, no armadas of bombers that dispensed death from great altitude.
Yet, unlike the horrors of Hiroshima or Dresden, the death camps or the killing fields of Cambodia or any of a dozen other places where thousands of civilians died, the slaughter of World War I was confined almost exclusively to the soldiers, sailors and aviators who wore their country’s uniform.
(The damage to the landscape was similarly limited; along the Western Front, artillery bombardments, the like of which has not since been repeated, razed every structure and obliterated the vegetation literally to the last blade of grass. Yet beyond the range of the big guns, the fecund land of Northern France and Belgium continued to produce bounties of food right through the war.)
And although the arsenals of World War I armies seem antiquated by modern standards — they relied heavily on horses, after all — they deployed these weapons against each other with a murderous efficiency that seems inexplicable by current sensitivities.
These days, to our credit, we mourn our military losses very nearly on an individual basis.
We can do this in part because the deaths are relatively rare.
During World War I, by contrast, Great Britain, France, Germany and Russia each suffered, and on different days, the death of more than 10,000 soldiers in a single day’s battle.
On France’s costliest day, in August 1914, and on Great Britain’s, July 1, 1916, each country lost at least 20,000 men.
Even on days when no major battles occurred — days the military propagandists would describe as “quiet” — a single army’s death toll frequently numbered in the hundreds.
(The German writer Erich Maria Remarque brilliantly exposed both the fallacy, and callousness, of this notion in his novel “All Quiet on the Western Front,” written between the world wars.)
These days I can’t conceive of any country subjecting its citizens to more than four years of such sustained bloodshed.
I don’t mean to suggest that human society has ascended to some ethereal realm of pacificity.
We’re obviously still capable of immense cruelty.
Soldiers and civilians die.
And yet, when I read about Frank Buckles, and ponder how the world changed during the vast span of his life, I can’t help but feel we have made progress.
That seems the proper word, at any rate, to describe where we are today as compared to that other day I mentioned before, July 1, 1916.
That was the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
British generals ordered their troops over the top that summer morning. There were poppies blooming, the favorite flower of war poets, although these fields were not in Flanders but in Picardy.
The Tommies, each burdened by 65 pounds or more, marched, as if for a holiday parade, across no man’s land, toward German trenches bristling with water-cooled Maxims.
By mid-afternoon, 20,000 Britons were dead.
Yet that terrible fact isn’t the worst part of the tale.
This awful carnage did not end the war.
It did not spawn an official investigation. There were no riots in London, no calls to overthrow a reckless government that had sacrificed men’s lives as though they were worth no more than a herd of beef cattle, fattened for the abbatoir.
What happened is the battle went on for 4ﬁ months more.
Another 275,000 men died — British, French, German, Australian, New Zealanders, South Africans, Canadians.
This, I believe, is the greatest legacy of the Great War, a conflict whose origin and even purpose seemed to confound the few men who could have prevented it.
Although I’m loathe to defend any war as both absolutely necessary and inevitable — World War II is the best case from the 20th century, certainly — none seems as utterly insane, and ultimately pointless, as World War I.
And yet we can say this about the conflict:
Notwithstanding the even longer butcher’s bill awaiting the world later in the century, not since Buckles’ day have we wasted the lives of so many soldiers simply because we couldn’t think of anything better to do.