Small World: Nov. 11 and all that

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht
BN Columnist
I was glad to see The News photos of Bridgtonians honoring veterans on their national day a couple of weeks ago. We all know that the date originally marked the armistice ending World War I — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
At that point, its four year’s duration made the Great War perhaps the bloodiest conflict in modern history. The Thirty Years’ War and the Hundred Years’ War probably took more lives centuries earlier, but they lacked the modern technologies to wreck efficient, massive death and destruction. Worse was to come, of course, when a scant two decades later the Second World War began. Talk about cruel conflicts!
I’ve been reading up on World War I, which had its centenary this year. Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark vividly describes the 1914 diplomacy that failed to prevent and perhaps even hastened the coming of the war. Now, I’m half way through Peacemakers by Margaret MacMillan, which tells the tale of how the victors made such a mess of dealing with the causes of the struggle and trying to lay the basis for a future world without war.
My father served in that war. A small town office worker, he was placed in the headquarters section of the 82nd Division (much later to be airborne) and, after being assigned to the frontline trenches, worked his way up to regimental sergeant major. In later years, he relished the fellowship of fellow soldiers and used to attend the reunions they scheduled. But, he never ever told us of his experiences, nor spoke of the stresses he must have suffered. After he died, we found in his safe deposit box commendation papers for his bravery under fire.
My brother used Pop’s papers to retrace his movements in France and even found an aristocratic chateau where his platoon had been billeted. The owners very hospitably invited Dave to lunch and never mentioned the damage the Americans might have inflicted on the furniture.
Probably that was because the French were sincerely grateful for the timely aid the Americans rendered just as the Germans seemed on the verge of prevailing. By 1918, the French had had enough of fighting and were ready to quit. My wife and I have traveled a fair ways in the back country of France and I’ve never failed to be impressed by the World War I monuments in each and every village. No matter how small, each town has one and they all list in neat, stone-cut lettering the names of those who gave their lives. Inevitably, some names will show that brothers or cousins were often among the fallen.
Our town, unlike Bridgton, didn’t have a monument to those killed in the World Wars or subsequent smaller ones (although a boulevard through an elegant 1920-era residential area is named Victory Drive). Nowhere are there names of victims, not even of the 19th century wars. What we had to remind us as I was growing up were men who sat on the park benches staring into space — seemingly mentally afflicted — shell shocked, we called them. Now, they have more scientific appellations, i.e., PTSD or such.
But back to peace making after the first war. Failure, it seems in hindsight, was guaranteed. In fact, the same senseless search for absolute security and the unwillingness to see the world through the eyes of presumed antagonists set up the greater conflict to come in the later 1930s.
The French wanted to keep Germany down; the British wanted to restore their position as a world power, the Russians want to create a new society under communist rule and Woodrow Wilson wanted his own rigid vision of how the new world would be shaped and governed. All failed.
Like most wars, the first world war was a narrative of an unnecessary conflict, stupidly started and stupidly conducted and ended with malice and little realistic thought about the future that was being laid down.
Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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