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By Mary L. Berg
At the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in the year nineteen-hundred eighteen, silence. Merciful, glorious silence!
The big guns of war had ceased firing; tanks, abandoned where they sat; rifles, laid down; hundreds of miles of trenches dug into the raw earth, empty, at last.
The War to End All Wars had come to an end. WWI, the Great War—begun four years, four months, and one-hundred and five days before, was over.
A century later, it all seems light-years away from our modern world. One-hundred-and-four-years ago though, the prevailing ‘empire’ mind-set thrust the ruling Western Powers of Europe into a downward spiral of political and military power-plays, with no exit-strategy from the looming maelstrom.
On June 28th, 1914, an assassin’s gun was the trip-wire; however, inevitable-war was in the making long before the Serbian terrorist group, The Black Hand carried out the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. This was just the first domino to fall.
The ‘Mutual Defense Alliances’ devised by the ruling Europeans in the decades before, had ‘set the stage’. The line-up fell into two opposing camps: the belligerents, Germany and Austria-Hungary; the Allies, Britain, France and Russia.
The fuse was lit on the ‘European Power’ powder keg, and by July 28th the other dominoes began to fall.
Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia; Russia came to Serbia’s defense; Germany declared war on Russia; France was drawn in against Germany and Austria-Hungary; Germany attacked France through Belgium, drawing Great Britain into the war. Eventually, Japan entered, and later Italy and the United States.
The powers-that-be were convinced this skirmish would be short-lived. It wasn’t to be, as quickly became apparent.
Germany, surrounded by enemies, relied on a vague strategy of quick invasion and defeat of France to the west, then a pivot to the east against the great behemoth, Russia.
You know what they say about the best-laid plans.
What ensued was called the ‘Race to the Sea’. The battle strategy of defense soon overtook that of offence, resulting in back-and-forth fighting; both sides desperately trying to out-flank the other in their race to the North Sea.
So, began the battle strategy of TRENCH WARFARE. By Christmas, 1914, the Western Front comprised over 400 miles of trenches and barbed wire fortifications.
The only silence of the guns since the first shots fired in July—and for the next three years, eleven months, eleven days, eleven hours and eleven minutes—was the Christmas Eve Truce. The sounds of Silent Night, Holy Night wafted across the 100 feet of no-man’s-land between enemy trenches, and was soon joined by the Brits, Belgians and French.
This all-too-brief respite not only allowed some to warily crawl out of the trenches and shake hands with their ‘enemy’—on this their shared Holy Day, but gave the troops time to bury their fallen comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks, unreachable between the trenches.
Christmas was over, the guns were ablaze again. The realization that this was going to be a long war finally dawned on both sides as they scrambled to enlist ‘machines’ to overcome the gruesome stalemate of trench warfare. Casualties had already reached over three million, with no end in sight.
Endless and merciless, indeed. Germany’s stealth, deadly campaign of U-Boat warfare ramped up in early 1915, leading to the infamous sinking of the British ocean liner, Lusitania. During the battle of Ypres, Germans introduced ‘chemical warfare’, killing and maiming with mustard and chlorine gas, resulting in over a million causalities by war’s end.
By mid-1916 during the Battle of Somme, armored tanks were brought onto the battlefield, but didn’t stem the carnage; the Brits alone, lost 50,000 troops. At sea, the Germans and British navies met in the first and largest naval battle, ending in a deadly ‘draw’.
By 1917 Woodrow Wilson got wind of a sop by the Germans to Mexico to hand over Texas when the Great War was won by the aggressors. President Wilson urged congress to declare war on Germany, after all, no one messes with Texas!
On April 6, 1917, Congress did indeed, declare war against Germany; by the end of that year, war was declared against Austria-Hungary.
Meanwhile, Russia, embroiled in their ‘Great Marxist Revolution’, was forced to sign an armistice with Germany and withdrew from the war by late 1917.
President Wilson providentially tapped General ‘Black Jack’ Pershing—fresh off the Mexican trail of Revolutionary Poncho Villa—as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) on the Western Front.
General Pershing was determined to do it his way, the American way, and that he did. He rejected the notion that American forces be integrated into the British or French armies just as fill-ins of their decimated troops, insisting the AEF would operate as a single unit under his command.
It was a slow pace; only a minimum number of American troops had landed in France by June 1917. A year later however, there were one million American troops with boots on the ground. In September, General Pershing commanded 500,000 troops of the U.S. First Army into the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, the first major American offensive missioned with taking the Saint-Mihiel Salient, a vital area the Germans had ferociously fought for and held, for over three years.
Because of the furious, unceasing pressure of the Allied Hundred Days Offensive launched in September, 1918—the Brits closing in from the north, fighting their way east into Flanders; the French pushing the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line; and the American forces advancing around Verdun, to the south—the Germans knew the bloody handwriting was on the wall.
Germany desperately began sending ‘notes’ to President Wilson in October, agreeing to his terms. Mercifully, the end was in sight.
The cost of fighting this “Great War” was devastating: The Allies, suffering over five million dead on the battlefield, and nearly sixteen million wounded, prisoners and missing; the belligerents, over three million dead, twelve million wounded, prisoners and missing. Over eight million souls gone forever, and many millions more whose lives would never again be the same.
Not to mention the influenza pandemic of 1918 that hit the battlefield toward the end of the war, claiming heaven knows how many more lives.
In August of this year, I had the good fortune of leading a tour of the Klatt family of Glenwood City, Wisconsin, to France where we first visited the grave of their uncle, PFC Helmer H. Alseth, killed on August 9th, 1944, during the D-Day Battle in Normandy. We then traveled to eastern France where we visited St. Mihiel American Cemetery, the resting place of the Klatt’s great-uncle, Pvt Helmer Nestor Dragseth, who perished on November 20th, 1918, just after the Armistice.
At the end of our journey in August, we knew it was ‘Mission Accomplished’. After walking the battlefields and seeing the history made there, the Klatt family was finally able to bid farewell to their uncle and great-uncle and better understand why their uncles died on these battlefields, wearing the uniform of the United States Army, fighting for their country.
In November of 2018 I again returned to the WWI ‘Western Front’, this time in Belgium, touring the northern Flanders area, where the British Army valiantly fought the German foe, to final Allied victory.
In the city of Ypres, In Flanders Fields Museum certainly offered a glimpse into the horrific battles of the Great War, yet while traveling through the villages and towns you really see and sense the true cost of what happened one hundred years ago. You cannot go more than few miles in any direction without seeing a cemetery, a monument, a memorial dedicated to those who fought for freedom and to those who sacrificed so much. The memories, the loss will never be forgotten.
At the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in the year twenty-eighteen, the country of Belgium and all the other nations who fought to end the Great War, stood in respect to honor those who fought so valiantly one hundred years ago.
During the ceremony at the Flanders Field American Cemetery, at Waregem, Belgium, I was able to find and photograph the headstones of twenty-two of the twenty-five veterans from Minnesota and Wisconsin buried in those grounds, alongside four-hundred fellow soldiers. Sadly, Pvt. William T. Fossum from Minnesota, was killed on the very last day of the war. Three of these veterans were WOM (Without Monument).
Many of the American and British graves all throughout Europe have been ‘adopted’ by very caring locals, who diligently place flowers on the graves of their adopted veteran—-such a beautiful sight!
Sadly, the silence ending the War to End All Wars would last only nineteen years and two-hundred-fifty-eight days until Hitler’s Germany maniacally took to the battlefields…ironically to avenge Germany’s loss in WWI.
Because warnings weren’t heeded, nor lessons learned, the dominoes of war began to fall again. It would be five years, two-hundred-forty-seven days until the guns of war in Europe would once again be mercifully, gloriously silent.
At last, Silent Night, Holy Night. May 8th, 1945; both World Wars, finally over in Europe…. hopefully, never forgotten, so never to be repeated.
Mary Berg is an author; and owner of WHERE THEY FOUGHT, WWII EUROPEAN TOURS.
Mary was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin; is a graduate of Hudson High School, and University of Wisconsin, River Falls; she and her husband Greg, reside in Lindstrom, Minnesota.