Friday, November 11, 2016

Armistice Day

"Armistice Day has become Veterans' Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans' Day is not."
—Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Breakfast of Champions

Methinks by this point I need not belabor the point, the reason for my stubborn preference to commemorate the old Armistice Day (or even the contemporary Remembrance Day) instead of Veterans' Day. Ninety-eight years ago today, 11 November 1918, at "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" the guns fell silent on the Western Front. The war would not formally end for months, 'til the hideously unjust peaces signed 'twixt the vindictive victors & the defiant defeated all but assured the next war. Separate peaces were signed 'twixt all the many, tangled belligerents, & of course the fighting did not stop in November 1918. War continued to rage for years to replace the Russian Empire with the Soviet Union & to rescue any kind of non-occupied Turkey from the shattered ruins of the Ottoman Empire. But none of this should obscure the seminal import of the Armistice.

My perspective on Armistice Day has changed since "The Explorers' Club's" 1914-1919 project began. I do not in any claim to have experienced the horrors of any war, much less the War to End All Wars, but as I study what was happening in the war a century hence, the Armistice feels very far away. Not because of the ninety-eight 'twixt now & then, but because from the worm's eye view of November 1916, it is hard to imagine that the war will ever end. In some ways, I cannot accept that the war will end in the way I know it did, because that makes all the suffering , death, & anguish of the next two years all the more unbearable. I know that too much I have been seduced by the honeyed lies of the postmodern revisionism that says the whole war was fought in vain, that it was to no useful purpose. That was not the perception of the men who fought: They knew for what they fought; they knew for what their comrades died. We must remember this & value their hard-earned wisdom above the snarky smugness of the latter-day know-it-alls, nihilists who weren't there, who didn't chance all for a cause higher than oneself. All of it was tragic, but none of it was in vain.

That said, we also dare not sugarcoat what it was, dare not turn our heads away & refuse to gaze upon the horror. We will remember them.

"Anthem for Doomed Youth"
by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

by Siegfriend Sassoon (1886-1967)

We'd gained our first objective hours before
While dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes,
Pallid, unshaved and thirsty, blind with smoke.
Things seemed all right at first. We held their line,
With bombers posted, Lewis guns well placed,
And clink of shovels deepening the shallow trench.
The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began,— the jolly old rain!

A yawning soldier knelt against the bank,
Staring across the morning blear with fog;
He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;
And then, of course, they started with five-nines
Traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud.
Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst
Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell,
While posturing giants dissolved in drifts of smoke.
He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear,
Sick for escape,— loathing the strangled horror
And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.

An officer came blundering down the trench:
"Stand-to and man the fire-step!" On he went…
Gasping and bawling, "Fire- step… counter-attack!"
Then the haze lifted. Bombing on the right
Down the old sap: machine- guns on the left;
And stumbling figures looming out in front.
"O Christ, they're coming at us!" Bullets spat,
And he remembered his rifle… rapid fire…
And started blazing wildly… then a bang
Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out
To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked
And fought the flapping veils of smothering gloom,
Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans…
Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned,
Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.

The Wayback Machine Tour of Armistice Day: Lest We Forget

Armistice Day '15 | Armistice Day '14

Armistice Day '13 | Armistice Day '12

Armistice Day '11 | Armistice Day '10

Armistice Day '09 | Armistice Day '08

Armistice Day '07 | Armistice Day '06

Armistice Day '05 | Armistice Day '04

Armistice Day '03 | Armistice Day '02

The Rebel Black Dot Song of Armistice Day
Eric Bogle, "The Band Played 'Waltzing Matilda'" courtesy The Watergirl (The Last Angry Man)

"And the old men marching slowly,
Old bones stiff and sore,
They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war,
And the young people ask, 'What are they marching for?'…"

God help us, lest we forget.

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