I got to meet only one World War I veteran. He was 103 years old when I met him, and he didn’t talk about the “Great War.”
Recently, I read Jeff Sharra’s incredible account of that war, To the Last Man.
Now I understand why no one would ever include what he’d seen in that war in casual conversation.
How would you explain trenches filled with mud and waste? How could one ever forget the smell of unburied corpses, or the sensation of stepping on a severed arm?
This was the war of the first airplanes, the ones with cloth wings. Pilots knew they would eventually die. They just didn’t know when or how. They prayed they wouldn’t burn to death. Many did.
This was the first war of the new heavy artillery. This was the first war with a portable machine gun. This was the first war of a new and horrible killing capacity.
And yet it was a war fought by generals still convinced the old strategy would still work. They amassed tens of thousands at a time to run at the machine guns and rolls of barbed wire.
They ran. They were cut down.
New men arrived. They, too, were asked to run toward their deaths.
Before it was over, the conservative estimates said 5,000 a day had died. Other estimates ran as high as 7,000 a day. Add in the civilians and you might have had 11,000 people a day from all sides dying in that hellish environment.
You didn’t misread all of that. That’s 11,000 people per day.
Today is a single day. Can you imagine? It went on for four years. For 1,568 unthinkable days.
The newspapers wrote of glory. They made heroes of the American pilots who fought with the French and British early on. They sent home photos of young Americans marching through Paris on their way to victory. The photos showed men with flags and flowers and smiles.
As the war went on, the real stories were never told. The only thing people back home knew was that families kept getting notices that their sons wouldn’t be returning home. Lots of them. Too many of them.
But no one knew the truth, because the papers weren’t telling the truth.
The only ones who really knew the horror of it all were those on the front lines. Those in the air. Those in the first tanks, the ones that never lasted that long. The ones who were nursing as many men as they could back to some measure of life.
They knew. These were what the new arrivals came to know as the “veterans.”
The newbies arrived with songs and bravado. The veterans simply stared at them with empty eyes. Soon they would give advice on staying alive. Soon they would watch as many of the new arrivals would become the latest casualties.
Those who survived it all came home with nightmares. They had injuries that weren’t always visible. They had survivor’s guilt.
They had been there when the big guns fell silent, when the Germans turned around and marched home. It happened on the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th hour.
They promised one another they would never forget what had happened on those fields of sacrifice.
They prayed the promises were true … that it would never happen again.
And yet they knew that it would. Deep inside, they knew there would always be a need for men and women to fight the wars that would surely come our way. There would always be a need … for veterans.
We thank God for those who’ve served us in years past.
We thank God for those who serve us now.
May we never forget.
May we never be without those with enough courage to become …