When I was 16 and insatiably curious, and most likely bored, I wandered into the garage. This was the height of adventure for me. I stood in front of the stack of old trunks, dusty and forgotten against the wall. Three of them with leather straps, buckles, scratches, dents. They had a glorious, mysterious, Indiana Jones charm about them.
One held letters from my uncle to his mother while he was stationed in Korea. I don’t remember what was in the other. But I do remember what was in the third: artifacts from the Great War.
My grandfather was a comparably old soldier of 29 when he went to France. In a picture of him at Camp Lewis, he has a firm, square, German jaw. Standing straight and tall, he’s a formidable giant. Broad and big in his doughboy’s best: brass buttons, helmet, woolen pants tucked into shiny black boots.
My father said that his dad never talked about the war, never told him any stories about what he saw, what he did, what happened.
It’s no wonder. Read All’s Quiet on the Western Front and get to the passage about the horses screaming during the bombings. Or catch up on the battle in the Belleau Woods, where wave after wave of farmers, truck drivers, train conductors, office clerks lay dying in the charred, bombed out deforested forest.
During the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, the Germans deployed chlorine gas for the first time. It killed 6,000 French soldiers within ten minutes. The wind then carried the gray-green gas along to nearby towns and snuck into open windows or found anyone caught outside, and killed an unknown amount of townspeople, too. Seeing this success, the Germans began planning their first use of mustard gas.
World War I was the first of its kind to design previously unimaginable atrocities against both soldier and civilian. It was an eerie precursor of what this last century – and this one – would become.
Those American boys, though, joined their Canadian, Australian, and British counterparts. Their Italians, Russians and French allies. Two million American men volunteered to go and two-and-a-half million were drafted. In some cases they were eager for their adventure to start, to test themselves against their circumstances. They thought the war would be over quick enough. A few months was all it would take to “drive the Hun out.” The Americans toiled for 20 months, but Europe was embroiled for four years.
They faced poor rations, trench foot, rats, maggots, lice, and No Man’s Land. Up and over the trenches, boys, with bayonets attached to their rifles, heading straight into the barbed wire fences, straight toward the enemy, who were exactly like them: boys headed straight into them.
My grandfather returned from the war but he was no longer strapping and robust. Mustard gassed, he returned a 90-pound skeleton. His lungs blistered. His body skin and bones.
It’s no wonder he never talked about these things. There is a lot to forget about such horrors. Ask any veteran from Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria what happened to them over there and you’ll most likely get the same story my grandfather gave: I don’t want to talk about it. It is too great, too sorrowful, too sad to tell.
They were dutiful boys and men, who stood in line for a paycheck, looked eagerly for letters from home, longed for packages of socks and cigarettes, wore their wills pinned to their jackets, who passed the time in their tents reading, writing their sweethearts and their mothers, playing cards with each other, all of them a long way from home, waiting for the war to come to an end, but when it was time, they were up and out with their rifles, always on the ready to be a part of the next wave to go up and over the parapet.
Thank you to all of the men and women who go willingly into the fight.