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WWI survivor stories
November 1, 2005 10:31 AM   Subscribe

On my 19th birthday in 1917, we were in the trenches at Passchendaele... Haig put a three-day barrage on the Germans, and thought, "Well, there can't be much left of them." I think it was the Yorkshires and Lancashires that went over. I watched them as they came out of their dugouts and the German machine guns just mowed them down. I doubt whether any of them reached the front line.
Harry Patch, Private, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. Born June 17 1898.
Of the millions who fought in WWI, only a handful are still alive today -- and all are now well over 100 years old. With the horror of the trenches about to slip from living memory, Max Arthur has tracked down and interviewed these last survivors of the 'carnage incomparable'.
posted by matteo (27 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Je me souviens.
posted by furtive at 10:43 AM on November 1, 2005


The Great war

*

The Trenches - What They Were Really Like

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"British intervention in the Great War was the greatest error of the twentieth century." -- Niall Ferguson
posted by matteo at 10:52 AM on November 1, 2005


What a way to spend your birthday. Whodda thought he'd have another 88 of them?

Really great post, matteo, I've only scratched it but its amazing. And humbling.
posted by fenriq at 10:53 AM on November 1, 2005


Some amazing stories, and some poignant conclusions by each man. Thought about this comment " I used not to think about it at all, but now people want to talk to me about it because I'm one of the few left. So now I have to think more about it." My grandfather was in WWII and I have no doubt that he thinks about it every day. When he visited me he'd start crying randomly, then tell me something like "If you've seen what I've seen..."

There are some things that I'm glad to be sheltered from.
posted by artifarce at 10:54 AM on November 1, 2005


I look back nowadays, and I think of the great war as a lot of political bull. There shouldn't be wars. That war was a lot of bloody political bull.
-- William Roberts, Corporal, Royal Flying Corps (main link)
posted by matteo at 10:57 AM on November 1, 2005


"One of them came running towards me. He couldn't have had any ammunition or he would have shot me, but he came towards me with his bayonet pointing at my chest. I fired and hit him in the shoulder. He dropped his rifle, but still came stumbling on. I can only suppose that he wanted to kick our Lewis gun into the mud, which would have made it useless. I had three live rounds left in my revolver and could have killed him with the first. What should I do? I had seconds to make my mind up. I gave him his life. I didn't kill him. I shot him above the ankle and above the knee and brought him down. I knew he would be picked up, passed back to a PoW camp, and at the end of the war he would rejoin his family."
posted by anastasiav at 11:01 AM on November 1, 2005


World War One is the West's original sin, for which we are paying (Iraq). Short of the war never happening, I think the best outcome would have been for the German Schlieffen Plan of September 1914 to have succeeded as intended. The whole thing would have ended as another harmless Franco-Prussian dustup, and we might still be enjoying the Golden Age that the war destroyed forever. The Germans of 1914 were no more asssholic than the other imperialist nations of that time, and their domination of Europe would hardly have been a disaster for humanity. Plus, they were allied with the Austrians, and think of all the great operetta we might still be enjoying. When it comes down to it, those damned Paris taxis have a lot to answer for.
posted by Faze at 11:08 AM on November 1, 2005


the best outcome would have been for the German Schlieffen Plan of September 1914 to have succeeded as intended

Hmm. Given what the Germans were found to be capable of 25 years later I'm not sure I agree.
posted by CynicalKnight at 11:42 AM on November 1, 2005


CK,

German humiliation after WWI is what spurred a lot of that to happen 25 years later. Faze presents an interesting theory, certainly.
posted by mr.curmudgeon at 11:50 AM on November 1, 2005


CynicalKnight: the Germany that gave birth to Nazisim, etc., was the was born out of the Versailles Treaty which ended WWI, and is generally agreed to have been destructively punitive toward the Krauts. It twisted their society out of shape, and made Max Beckmann and George Grosz necessary. On the other hand, a Germany that had kicked France's ass in September 1914, would have remained the comparatively liberal monarchy it was (it was especially liberal toward Jews, who were more assimilated and were a greater portion of the governing class in Germany than in any other nation at the time). In other words, which the Germans were not "good" in starting the war, once it got started and everyone was duking it out, the best outcome probably would have been for them to have an early victory.
Now -- here's what the United States should have done: While England, France, Europe, Italy, Belgium, Austria, France and Russia were busy slaughtering each other in Europe, the U.S. should have sent troops to the Middle East and grabbed up all the oil producing territory. Who would have stopped us? It would have been no trouble sending the indiginous nomads packing. Then we could have sat back on the world's largest oil reserve, and laughed our heads off, watching Europe reduce itself to huge, muddy, corpse-filled field. The 20th and 21st centuries would have gone quite a bit differently, I can assure you.
posted by Faze at 12:01 PM on November 1, 2005


England’s amateur diplomats catch a lot of hell for “working with the Nazis.” It appears many of them were honestly looking to avoid another round of this and felt the treaty was responsible.

Not excusing them for the anti-semeticism of course, but...

I couldn’t imagine what it would be like fighting that war. Those tactics. The macnine gun. Trenches. Madness.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:10 PM on November 1, 2005


Napoleon-->Congress of Vienna (where Talleyrand advanced and triumphed with his argument for "balance of power")--> ~100 years of European national rivalry "outsourced" in the form of colonial competition + a Byzantine system of interlocking mutual-defense treaties which effectively maintained the status quo on the continent / the rise of violent nationalism (see: Austro-Hungarian Empire, the "Irish Question," etc.)=WWI-->The treaty of Versaille (the Anti-Congress of Vienna)+economic hardship+the politicization of ultra-nationalism=WWII

Faze's assessment might be a bit simplistic.

On preview: Faze, in 1914, America and Europe were coal-based economies. It is not until the surge in demand created in no small part by the rise of effective mechanized combat units that oil became of strategic importance. Besides, we were self-sufficient in oil production well into the 1950s--invading the Middle East to sieze what, effectively (in 1917), was a worthless commodity would have been the height of stupidity--no American administration would ever have gotten the support to do it.
posted by Chrischris at 12:18 PM on November 1, 2005


You know, I am absolutely thrilled that there have been so many WWI posts here at MeFi lately. A terrible time in world history, but one of my favorite times to study.

My dad is a civil war buff, I'm a WW I buff, presumably my son with be a WWII buff.

Anyhow, nice work.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:27 PM on November 1, 2005


The Vietnam War was an indirect consequence of World War I. Ho Chi Minh petitioned the delegates to the Versailles peace conference on behalf of Vietnamese self-determination but discovered that Wilson's Fourteen Points only applied to Europeans.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:46 PM on November 1, 2005


I dunno, Faze. Painful lessons are lessons learned. Unless you're George Bush, anyway.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:48 PM on November 1, 2005


.


----

" We never had any parachutes and we didn't have radio. We had pigeons which we carried in a basket, but I never had to use them." ......."But when I first got in the cockpit, it was my job to sit behind the pilot and defend the plane with a pair of Lee Enfield rifles." .......

I would have taken the above for pythonesque. Part of the genius of monty python is that this stuff actually happened.

The best absurdist comedy comes from tragedy.

The ultimate tragedy is that this comedy is (and continues to be) based on fact, not fiction.
posted by lalochezia at 12:52 PM on November 1, 2005


invading the Middle East to sieze what, effectively (in 1917), was a worthless commodity would have been the height of stupidity--no American administration would ever have gotten the support to do it.

However, they did get the support to send our own fellows off to be mowed down by machine gun fire for no good purpose. No, really, here's what I was thinking, ChrisChris, it would be like if I went back in time, knowing what I know now, and was somehow able to talk them into doing that. Naturally, it would have been a mortal sin to have killed all those indigenous nomads, or driven them off someplace and ruined their culture, but it would have been no worse than what we actually DID do a few years earlier, which was invade the Philippines and kill like crazy for no good reason but to say that they were "ours" (helping to trigger the war with Japan many years later).
I think that WWI was a war without "good guys" at the political level, and a war without "bad guys" at the grunt level.
posted by Faze at 12:57 PM on November 1, 2005


However, they did get the support to send our own fellows off to be mowed down by machine gun fire for no good purpose.
The reason the doughboys went to the trenches is precisely the same reason squaddies are now getting blown up in Iraq--the much-vauntedspecial relationship, which has been, for better or worse, a diplomatic constant for almost a hundred years...
posted by Chrischris at 1:18 PM on November 1, 2005


This is a great post. The interviews were really poignant. My grandfather (who died before I was born) served in WWI, and I always feel that it's the ignored world war in popular culture...
posted by ob at 2:18 PM on November 1, 2005


I couldn’t imagine what it would be like fighting that war. Those tactics. The macnine gun. Trenches. Madness.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:10 PM PST on November 1 [!]


...and the mustard gas. :( And all documented in the book "War Against War" !!!NSFW[Memory Hole link (pics are on different pages) ... Thenausea link pics are further down the page! Careful when scrolling!]NSFW!!!
Pictures are extremely graphic, and illustrate some of the trench warfare carnage that is described in the first link. The book's pretty harrowing to read - a friend of mine picked it up from Amok books a bunch of years back.
posted by Zack_Replica at 2:21 PM on November 1, 2005


Indeed, Zack_Replica.


Madness.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:29 PM on November 1, 2005


Excellent post, thanks.
posted by marxchivist at 2:55 PM on November 1, 2005


I just finished reading the first link. All I can say is "Whoa." Thanks, matteo.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:57 PM on November 1, 2005


Faze: "invading the Middle East to sieze what, effectively (in 1917), was a worthless commodity would have been the height of stupidity--no American administration would ever have gotten the support to do it."

According to a comedian I saw last night (Rob Newman late of The Mary Whitehouse Experience), the first moves of the First World War, was actually the garisoning of the Second Derbyshire Regiment in Basra. He claims (which I have not had time to look into yet) that the whole war was a result of a British oil grab on Iraq -- since the Royal Navy had recently converted its fleet to be oil based rather than coal based, and the Imperial German fleet was in the process of being converted.

The British regiment were moved to Basra to stop the expansion of the Orient Express which would have allowed the transport of the large, recently discovered, oil reserves right the way back Imperial Germany.

He pointed out that if Wilfred Owen had bee stationed in Mesopotamia, we would never have heard of him.
posted by couch at 1:39 AM on November 2, 2005


World War One is the West's original sin,

Colonialism?

we might still be enjoying the Golden Age that the war destroyed forever.

The Golden Age of bowing down to the white man? The Golden Age of bowing down to one's betters?
posted by biffa at 2:50 AM on November 2, 2005


Paths of Glory
posted by hortense at 4:02 AM on November 2, 2005


Great Power Conflict over Iraqi Oil: the World War I Era:
During World War I (1914-18), strategists for all the major powers increasingly perceived oil as a key military asset, due to the adoption of oil-powered naval ships, new horseless army vehicles such as trucks and tanks, and even military airplanes. Use of oil during the war increased so rapidly that a severe shortage developed in 1917-18.
...
Unfortunately for the British, they had ceded much of the oil-producing area in northern Iraq to their French ally in the secret Sykes-Picot Accord of early 1916, carving up the soon-to-be defeated Ottoman Empire. British diplomacy and military plans changed course to recoup what had already been given away. In August 1918, Balfour told assembled Prime Ministers of the British Dominions that Britain must be the "guiding spirit" in Mesopotamia, so as to provide a key resource that the British Empire lacked. "I do not care under what system we keep the oil," he said. "But I am quite clear it is all-important for us that this oil should be available."
posted by kirkaracha at 7:04 AM on November 2, 2005


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