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World War I: The courage and folly of the tussle that left indelible scars

Alan Cowell | NYT/ 10 Nov 18 | 07:31 PM

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Seconds before an armistice formally ended World War I on November 11, 1918, Pvt Henry Nicholas Gunther, an American soldier from Baltimore, mounted a final, one-man charge against a German machine-gun nest in northeastern France.

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The German gunners, The Baltimore Sun reported many years later, had tried to wave him away, but he ran on, only to perish in a burst of heavy automatic fire — the last soldier of any nationality to die in the conflict — at 10.59 am local time. One minute later, under the terms of an armistice signed about six hours earlier, the so-called Great War, the “war to end all wars," was over, and the world was an altered place.

The casualties since the conflict’s first engagements in 1914 ran into many millions, both military and civilian. The very nature of warfare had changed irrevocably. Empires crumbled, new nations arose and the world’s maps were redrawn in ways that reverberate mightily a century later. With men away at the front lines, women assumed roles in the work force back home that hastened their emancipation and changed social ways forever.

The war’s unfolding had been punctuated by related events that would become markers in history: the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916; the Russian Revolution a year later; the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which together drew the parameters of the modern Middle East and foreshadowed the creation of Israel. In 1917, the United States entered the war with a decisive deployment of soldiers that was a first step toward taking on the status of a superpower.

Against those overarching events, Private Gunther’s charge might seem no more than a postscript. Yet his “sad, senseless end," as The Baltimore Sun put it, endures as an emblem of the courage and folly of a war that formally ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. It is a reminder, too, of a different age of gallantry and pain, before human experience was compressed into a pixelated fragment, a fleeting distillate transacted on social media.

A century on, a question remains: Will, or should, this commemoration of Veterans Day — or Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day, as the date is also known — be the last on this scale? Should the world continue to pause in silence to honor the sacrifice and bravery of those who fought it on the ground — “lions led by donkeys," according to a phrase used to scorn the bumbling British officer class drawn from the upper crust?

Some argue that commemorations have become no more than lip service. But the warnings against collective amnesia go back a long way. Even in 1915, long before the armistice, one of the most quoted poems of the war, by the Canadian military doctor Lt. Col. John McCrae, imagined fallen soldiers warning the survivors: “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields."

In today’s world of shifting international alignments, uneasy alliances and growing nationalism, World War I offers a reminder of how easily and unexpectedly an obscure spark can ignite a conflagration. In 2011, for instance, when the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in Tunisia helped start the Arab Spring, who would have imagined that, seven years later, his action could have built into crises that have spread across the region and rekindled rivalries reminiscent of the Cold War?

The 1914-18 war has found other curious, possibly inadvertent, echoes. At a campaign rally in Montana on November 3, President Trump spoke about his efforts to prevent Central Americans from crossing the border into the United States, lauding what he called “all that beautiful barbed wire going up today." “Barbed wire, used properly, can be a beautiful sight," he mused.

Barbed wire, which was invented in the 19th century, was long used to fence off cattle ranges in the American West. It figured, too, in the architecture of human incarceration. But in World War I, mile upon mile of coiled barbed wire wove through the blasted terrain of trench warfare to create entanglements that impeded foot soldiers and exposed them to withering fire and bombardment.

In 1918, in a poem titled “Exposure," Wilfred Owen evoked the delusional nightmares of soldiers crouched in trenches, awaiting combat as a wintry wind howled over the battlefield. He, too, spoke of barbed wire, though not in terms of beauty. “Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire, / Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles." Owen died seven days before the  armistice stilled the guns.

The start of World War I is traced to events in Sarajevo, then a part of Austria-Hungary, on June 28, 1914, when Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian, fired a handgun and assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Hapsburg throne, and his wife, Sophie. 

© 2018 The New York Times News Service

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