Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Morning Thanks--What history does
When in fact it's all said and done, I don't know that it makes much difference. There's no erasing the outcome, no deleting what actually happened, no second chances coming round the bend. What did happen can't be somehow reversed, and the horrifying death toll still stuns us today. In the Great War had 10,000,000 casualties. I didn't write out the number. I wanted you to see all those zeroes. Because they weren't.
An article in the latest Smithsonian, an article titled "Battle Scars," works hard to dispel myths we've lived with and passed along for a century--to wit, that the real dunderhead, the man on whom many millions of those casualties can be blamed is a Brit General named Haig, Sir Douglas Haig.
On July 1, 1916, 120,000 British troops rose up out of their trenches and struck out for "no man's land" and the German lines just beyond. What they ran into is a form of technological warfare no one reckoned with, something called "the machine gun," a weapon that begat terror and death like nothing ever seen before. One chaplain wrote his wife on July 4: "Nobody could put on paper the whole truth of what went on here on Saturday and during Saturday night, and no one could read it, if he did, without being sick."
Thousands died. What people still call "The Great War" was a muddy slaughterhouse. When the Brits just kept coming in the face of fire that came from German lines, each machine gun capable of firing almost 500 rounds of ammunition in a minute, the Germans thought the English had gone crazy: "The English came walking as though they were going to the theater or were on a parade ground," one German soldier remembered. One Brit company had an 89 percent casualty rate.
For that carnage, historians have blamed Sir Douglas Haig, one influential article calling him "The Worst General."
But Andrew Roberts claims we've been wrong. Recent scholarship, he says, has presented "a new view of Haig and his commanders: that they were smarter and more adaptable than other Allied generals, and swiftly applied the harrowing lessons of the Somme."
Most Americans, Roberts says, claim John J. Pershing, the American general, as a hero because the late entry of the American fighting forces appeared to end what had dragged on in endless bloodletting for four long years. Pershing brought in the Yanks and cleaned the mess up, or so we tell the story, Roberts says.
But Roberts says research clearly shows that it was Haig who determined immediately that old-line battlefield maneuvers were deadly, that tactics, new tactics, had to be improvised and utilized to stop the carnage created by what Brits began to call "the Devil's paintbrush."
"Despite the British example," Roberts says, "Pershing took an astonishingly long time to adapt to the new realities of the battlefield, at the cost of much unnecessary spilled American blood."
My great uncle among them.
Edgar Hartman was killed in France, on the battlefield, in August of 1918, just a month after he arrived in Europe from a little Wisconsin town where he may or may not have ever fired a gun. He was one of 115,000 Americans who died in the Great War; 200,000 were wounded in less than six months of military action.
Before American forces had arrived, a fact-finding mission had been sent over to France to look over the situation on the ground. They had made clear that American forces needed twice as many guns, and especially "medium-sized field guns and howitzers," Roberts says, "without which the experience of the present war shows positively that it is impossible for infantry to advance," so states the original report, "the bayonet is as obsolete as the crossbow."
Pershing wasn't buying it, and as a result thousands died when we entered the horror.
Was Uncle Edgar adequately prepared? Mostly likely, no--but then no one could be, really. Was he cannon fodder? Probably, but in warfare, many are. In our own finest hours, we call what he did sacrifice. Disillusioned WWI veterans--and they were legion--called it something else. Battlefields in WWI were little more than graveyards.
Who cares? Can Uncle Edgar's descendants, me among them, prepare a law suit against the great-grandchildren of Gen. John J. Pershing? Is anything that Andrew Roberts says in "Battle Scars," any new research he has discovered ever going to bring Uncle Edgar or ten million (10,000,000) human beings back to life? Of course not.
So who cares?
I do. The truth won't set us free from the fact that somewhere just outside of the Ville Savoy Uncle Edgar's blood was spent in a war effort he hadn't even been part of long enough to know or understand. The truth doesn't set us free from the fact that he never returned.
But history has meaning, everyday meaning; and we'd better listen because we call those who have lost their memories, their own history, senile. Even if Pershing's hopeless battlefield conservatism led to deaths that didn't have to happen, it's important that we know the truth, that we remain thoughtful and vigilant so history doesn't repeat itself, as it does, when we don't.
I'm grateful this morning for knowing more than I did yesterday about the death of a man I never knew but would have liked to.