If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Shrapnel and Mettle

Well, friends, I do apologise for the delays in updates.  Interruptions in the water service to my building have required me to be a bit flexible in my timings, and the unfortunate thing means that posting to my column here has had to be held off in interest of making time for other items on my agenda.

I was, though, very saddened this morning upon receiving the news that a friend of mine had just lost his best cat friend.  It got me thinking about loss and how we cope with it; and how very different it must have been to cope with the volume and type of loss common to the Western Front.  More on that shortly.

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Death rarely comes neatly in war.  The human body is fragile and the instruments of war are designed with the intent to to do as much harm as is possible.  That may seem a bit of an obvious statement, but one that requires a bit of reflection.  The main cause of casualties on the Western Front, perhaps not surprisingly, was via the artillery.  Shrapnel and shell-splinters accounted for the majority of combat injuries which is reasonable considering the environment of trench warfare and the role artillery had in dislodging defensive forces.  This particular way in which the First World War was fought actually lent a lot to the disturbing number of men who's remains were never found, or conversely the ability to identify remains once discovered.  A shell burst might bury men within a trench, completely obliterate a casualty by force of explosion or even displace bodies buried from previous attacks.  Ground was contested time and again over the length of the war, and the danger of no-man's land often made removing the dead from the field an impossible task.  There were incidences where temporary cease-fires were arranged, such as between ANZAC and Ottoman forces during the Gallipoli campaign to attend to casualties.  More often it was reliant upon medical staff to put themselves at great risk to bring casualties in for treatment. Sometimes, it was just not possible to be done.

Let's also keep in mind the kind of society from which the combatants of the war came from.  Disease and deformity were by far a more common sight; and many men, even if they were more town than country would have had more first hand experience with slaughter of livestock than today.  This might mean that they would be perhaps more inured to death and blood.  Even taking that into account, though, the sheer industrial scale of destruction was quite beyond any event could have prepared them for.  The human desire for closure, especially towards a tragic event as death would have been as strong then as it is now.

There are thousands of families who even today have no definitive knowledge of how, when or exactly where a loved one was killed.  To this end there have been small victories through the diligent work of researchers and volunteers who take great pains to identify the remains which become disinterred from time to time all along where the Front used to stand.  Sadly, there are not enough people to do this type of work, and sometimes there is just not enough evidence found with a body to even hazard a guess as to whom the person was.  The "unknown soldier" of the First World War is a testament to those who will never be identified, as well as being symbolic of the anonymous slaughter of industrial warfare.

The fact that despite losses, death and wounds which would have had an effect on an emotional level, men on both sides carried on.  There was no immunity from this, as even Field Marshal Haig was advised by his staff to stop visiting wounded in hospital because of the melancholy effect it was having on the Commander-in-Chief.   It's hard, if not impossible to understand the motivation, the sheer force of will that was required of the combatants of the First World War to carry on in the face of their own mortality.  It gives us pause to think about how a decision give up on something in this day and age might seem terribly trivial in perspective.

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