Americans marked the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War One in 2018.
World War One, also known as the Great War, ended when world leaders at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month signed an armistice ending four years of bloody battles. Americans honor their war heroes, both living and dead, each year on Nov. 11 with ceremonies to mark Veterans Day, a national holiday. https://www.worldwar1centennial.org/
Whether that anniversary or another reason, a new movie out, “1917”, attests to some renewed interest in that particular war. There is much that could be said of it, but one of the unusual aspects was that so much was changing in the world just then.
I have the small diary that my grandfather carried during that war, and he mentions the men having to be taught how to drive cars as ambulances. Today, we can hardly imagine people not already knowing that, particularly in the United States where roads are overflowing.
I can’t speak to certain aspects of the military that he recorded, such as a negligence in seeing to the needs of the men on the part of the officers, or less-than-sanitary practices in the medical facilities (and this not in the midst of warfare when there was no leisure for attention to usual such details). Those things may or may not have been typical before and after World War I.
Whether due to limited space in the small diary (smaller than a paperback book) or unwillingness to record too much, he skims over a lot of likely horrors he saw during battles and as an ambulance driver. Other than an occasional focused remark specific to what he was seeing, much of what he recorded was trivia of how he spent his days (a lot of reading). Here are few snippets. In brackets  is me trying to identify locations, or translating something since he threw in French or German words on occasion.
Aug 15, 1917 – At 2:30 a.m. the guard saw a porpoise which he mistook for a torpedo and set up a terrified alarm.
Aug 20, 1917 – Sighted Bells Isle [Belle Ile] at 8:20 a.m. Had a real submarine attack by 5 subs on all sides. Two French aeroplanes appeared overhead and followed us in. Some fright. This afternoon our ship drew up to the docks of St. Nazaire amid the cheering of the crowd. I stood on the ship and gazed into the faces of a crowd I shall never forget – a crowd of little children, old men, wounded soldiers, and women dressed in black.
Sep 3, 1917 – Went down to American Base Hospital troop and found the men there having 3 heavy blankets, overcoats and field knives. They will not go out of the hospital, while we are in the field without knives or overcoats and only two thin blankets – some system.
Sep 10, 1917 – Had some more excellent training for ambulance driving – worked as a stevedor unloading ammunition – as yet I have learned about everything except the handling of a Ford car.
Sep 15, 1917 – A French guide came in from the front to take 4 sections to the front (not us – tough luck) and he said, “Always you are shelled, sometimes you are wounded, sometimes you are killed” – as though he were asking for ham and eggs.
Oct 7, 1917 – Cars run fine except that hobnails left by many soldiers in the road have caused many punctures – largely because the tires are not heavy enough to stand the work.
Oct 9, 1917 – My first view of trenches and wire entanglements and covered trenches prepared all over this part of the country in case the French are forced to retreat further on.
Oct 12, 1917 – Left Sandricourt by train and went to Paris. Drove from there to the American Base Hospital at Nevilly [poss. Neuilly-sur-Seine in NW Paris] where we were held all afternoon and not allowed to go sight-seeing. Left Paris at 8:00 p.m. for Bar-le-Duc where we arrived at 2:30 in pitch darkness and pouring rain that had fallen incessantly all day. Were quartered among the French soldiers for the rest of the night. One does not mention that the officers went to a hotel and retired without finding quarters for the men and also they failed to provide any breakfast for us.
Oct 13, 1917 – Drove from Bar-le-Duc to Le Grange aux Bois [La Grange-aux-Bois] in DeDion trucks and passed through wrecked and ruined villages all the way. Soldiers’ graves dot the fields partout [far and wide]- all marked with a simple cross of black iron. Arrived at Le Grange [La Grange] at noon where we relieved a Field section. Went out to the front apres midi [after noon] for the first time when Bosch [boche – a German, like “Jap”] was shelling battery in the woods behind us, and we could hear them sing over our heads and crash in our rear – uncomfortably close. Still mere child’s play compared to Verdun. This sector in the Argonne woods is known as a sector of rest. Thank heavens for us as we are expected to drive Fiats which most of us never handled before. We have good winter quarters and expect to be here some time. The town has never been shelled by aeroplanes, although we see one hovering over us now and then.
Oct 16, 1917 – Birthday – never could understand why one received congratulations on that day but hope now that I can next year.
Oct 27, 1917 – Went to La Chalade [Lachalade] with the Lieutenant and from there to the front lines where I climbed an observation tree and had a fine view of Bosche lines. Also went down into a Marine gun dugout (size 37) fully 20 feet below the surface of the hill. The man in charge gave me a shell and showed us several unexploded German shells…within 10 yards of his door. A Bosche shell exploded near us and a tree fell near the unexploded shells – a little more and I would not write this line – c’est la guerre.
Feb 3, 1918 – Went to see Verdun Fortress and outlying posts at Alsace and La Source – my first view of Death valley and the great battle field of the war.
May 31, 1918 – Resume: Four men captured or killed, 2 men wounded, one man sick. 9 cars lost in action. The Germans advanced practically unopposed to the banks of the Marne – the French failed to blow up the bridges on the Aisne.
Jul 17, 1918 – Arrived in Ferrieres en Gatinais [Ferrieres-en-Gatinais] for Permission – discovered that all my friends believed that I had died like a hero in battle of Aisne.
Feb 13, 1919 – Received orders for home.
So much has changed in the world even since 1919. Cars are commonplace, communication is rapid and usually fairly dependable, and a great deal of warfare is done without ever actually seeing the enemy due to missile or drone strikes. Even so, for those on the ground, in the middle of it, war is horrifying and traumatizing.
There was a Star Trek episode in the original series wherein a planet engaged in warfare all by computer. If the computer said a bomb had destroyed a city or town and killed x many people, the side ‘hit’ would randomly round up and send that many people to a death chamber. It had made war very clean and sanitary, and removed the horror of it from being so ‘in your face’. Kirk and his crew disrupted that and restored the horror aspect to warfare, indicating it would do more to encourage a peaceful settlement of differences than making it all so clean and tidy.
Whether or not Kirk/Star Trek was right about that, war is not desirable in the eyes of most of us. World War I was called The Great War, but British author H. G. Wells also dubbed it “the war to end all wars” and that moniker was quickly accepted. The idea was that it would destroy the sorts of governments and ideas that led to war. And, yet, a mere twenty years later we found ourselves facing World War II.
We’ve made a lot of progress in many ways since 1917, but in many ways we haven’t changed much at all. I, for one, think we need to be working harder to make sure there is never a World War III.