It is sweet and right to die for your country
By Mike Miley
The War had been raging for several weeks and winter was beginning to set in. In over a month the world would see one of the largest mass outbreaks of peace in human history, the Christmas Truce. All along battle lines, British, German, and to a lesser extent French troops would meet in the middle of No Man’s Land not as combatants embraced in a struggle of life and death, but as brothers in the dysfunctional family we call mankind on Christmas day.
In some places it was only a cordial ceasefire to recover the bodies of fallen comrades ,but in others it was full fraternization. Gifts were exchanged and fútbol matches were held. The War grounded to a halt for that week.
There, at that monument, all the bloodshed, horror and sheer incomprehensible madness that followed could have been avoided but the General Staffs on both sides panicked — the war must go on, and so it did, into its blood soaked infamy. The nature and way nations waged war would forever be changed from then on out.
The armies from the summer of 1914 were vastly different from the ones of today. Since it was in the trenches, much of the modern field kit and war tactics would be born. The Germans had been the first to adopt camouflage switching from the Prussian blue of 1871 to the infamous feldgrau, the field grey that historians have all come to associate the German army with, right up until the end of the Second World War.
The British were only just switching over to khaki (though the Highland Regiments of Scots would still go into battle with kilts for some time afterward) following how successful it was during the Boer War. The French marched into battle with bright red pants. The French Calvary of 1914 still dressed as Napoleon’s cuirassiers did in 1812, with bright plumed helmets and polished brass chest plates and the German heavy Calvary of 1914 still rode into combat with lances.
After the Marne, and Race to the Sea ended in a tie, each side attempted to outflank the other, where men huddled in slit trenches marked with shell holes. War trenches stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea. Men didn’t wear helmets back then. The British went in with field caps still, and the famed German spiked leather Pickelhaube helmet.
The British wouldn’t adopt the tin helmet we all think of when we imagine the war until July of 1915, we may never know how many lost their lives because of shrapnel raining down on the heads of those huddled in shellholes and trenches.
The War would also give us the scourge of chemical weapons, and instill such a fear of them that no European or American military force would deploy them in combat ever again, that is if you don’t count the dubious usage of White Phosphors and Iraq deploying American made chemical weapons on the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war, to the current crimes of Basher al Asad using them on his own people in the ongoing civil war. While America has stripped him of his advanced weapons, Asad has repurposed his chlorine for water purification into the weapon Germans used on the British at Ypres in 1915.
The War introduced much of the aspects that would define modern warfare as it advanced to the modern day: the tank, the machine gun, combined arms tactics, and the development of strategic bombings of cities. As the 20th century would progress the civilian population of nations at war would increasingly become the target of military action, from the Zeppelin raids on Paris and London to stealth bombers striking Baghdad. Civilian casualties were one of the unsung tragedies of warfare and it all started then in 1914.
Today it is not controversial to look on warfare as a terrible thing that we humans continually do to one another, but in 1914 there were people that looked on warfare as a positive thing, a good thing even that should be sought for and relished, and while some of these insane notions persist among segments of conservatives, this kind of rash militarism would be squashed by The War.
In 1914 men went marching off with song on their lips as if going off on a grand adventure. And in many aspects they were, but by the time of the Christmas Truce, well before 1918, the great vast majority of those would be dead. By 1915 this enthusiasm would be gone. Wilfred Owen, a lieutenant and now renowned poet, would best sum up the mood after 1915.
“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs. obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud. Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues. My friend, you would not tell with such high zest, to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie: It is sweet and right to die for your country.”
Owen would be killed within a month, only a week before the war ended.