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Pause for poppies today

Posted by Euroranger on November 11, 2009


What no coffee may look like (Excluded: one un-caffeinated Euroranger)

What no coffee may look like (Excluded: one un-caffeinated Euroranger)


I had every intention of writing a blog entry this morning that had nothing serious to say or profound to impart.  I had mentioned I would post a follow up entry to my trip to Mexico City with photographs I had taken.  I was directed to an article on the web yesterday about a medical “breakthrough” that I thought I might express thoughts on.  I had a few options this morning as I was feeling “bloggy” (bloggy is that state of feeling you get when you need to spit something out on the screen but you’re doing it with zero caffeine in your system because Mrs. Ranger allowed the Ranger household’s coffee supply to expire).  I had all these potential courses of conversational discourse to explore this morning.

And then I realized that today is November 11: Veterans Day.

As we all know, I’m a southern American by birth.  Folks in this region tend to hold military service and those who serve and have served in the military in somewhat higher regard than folks in other parts of the country.  That said, Veterans Day to me will always be mentally connected to the way people in Canada, Great Britain and the like observe the day.  This has, I’m sure, much to do with me living my teenage and early 20’s years in Canada and receiving the full exposure of the occasion during that impressionable time of my life.  This, coincidentally, is the identical excuse I use for my idolatry of beer…but that has nothing to do with November 11.  I’ll drink a beer any day of the year.  That’s just the way I roll.  However, enough about beer.  This is about Veterans Day.


Canadian history

Trust me. This makes it better. Bonus: due to nothing much to sign about, it's just one song and he sings it real loud to keep you awake.


I attended university in Canada and, despite my best initial intentions to get a useful degree, I came out with a degree in history instead.  American History, to be specific.  Attaining a degree in American History from a Canadian university was a somewhat conflicting experience.  Canadians have a kind of love/hate relationship with their American neighbors and that relationship tends to equalize right around the “quiet tolerance/mild distaste” mark on that sliding scale.  Point is, what I was taught about American History at McMaster University tended to involve not an atom of the jingoism that you might encounter from less objective American instructors in the United States.  Canada tends to get history down pretty well except for the persistent myth that Canada won the War of 1812 and burned the White House (both claims being utter crap).  I believe the Canadian ability to teach history objectively is a combination of their inoffensive national personality and the fact that their own history is almost as exciting as watching paint dry.  I took only a single Canadian history course (it was required) but I can well imagine that the suicide rate amongst Canadian History majors must be staggering.  They’re probably the most well-rested, inoffensive, suicide victims on the planet.

Anyway, Veterans Day.  Right.  So, being the history major that I am, I hold an appreciation for the events that led us (Americans) to where we are right now.  Veterans Day, unlike other remembrance holidays or commemorations, was created quite soon after the events that inspired it.  President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed November 11, 1919 (the first anniversary of the end of fighting in WW1) as “Armistice Day”.  Over time the Congress and the president reaffirmed the observation of a day dedicated to the ending of wars (it changed from an observation of the end of WW1 to an observation of the end of wars in general in 1954 after WW2 and Korea).  However, the original observation was of the end of the horror of World War One (at the time, called the Great War or the War to End All Wars) and it specifically marked the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918…which was the moment the armistice between the Allies and the Central Powers went into effect on the Western Front.  This essentially ended combat in WW1.  The war technically lasted until the peace agreement more than 7 months later but major combat ended at 11AM on November 11, 1918.

Of all the wars fought in modern times WW1 is probably the least widely known conflict.  The way the war ended played out like a cliffhanger in a Hollywood movie.  Drama, desperate moments for the good guys, the timely arrival of the cavalry and the ultimate defeat of the bad guys is kind of well known.  The actual details of the final year of the war though are largely unknown to the public…and it’s a real shame.  People in general have no idea:

  • how close the Allies on the Western Front came to losing the war during the last German offensive in 1918
  • that Germany suffered almost no combat on it’s own soil
  • that what likely did in the Germans wasn’t the last Allied push by the English, French, Canadians and Americans in the west but by an Italian offensive in the south that resulted in Austria-Hungary signing an armistice and surrendering a week before Germany did
  • most don’t know that that Italian offensive also involved English, French and, yes, American troops
  • that concentration camps made their first appearance in WW1 (yes the Germans did this)
  • that tanks, machine-guns, barbed wire, steel helmets, flamethrowers, mass produced hand grenades, submarine warfare, freighter convoys, aerial reconnaissance, fighter planes, parachutes, bombers – they all made their major combat debuts during WW1 and are still with us today
  • that cavalry charges, gas attacks, zeppelin raids, balloon spotters – they all came and went or departed entirely during WW1 pretty much never to be seen again
  • the war was only in the infamous and iconic trenches for the most part along the Western Front – other theatres had trench warfare but only for brief spurts and never bogged down into a static line like the Western Front did
  • that war on the Western Front was hardly continuous – 99% of the time men were just sitting in trenches and not going “over the top” or getting shelled or gassed – major combat was centered on less than a dozen battles over the 4 year duration of the war


Poppy field

If you look real hard you might see poppies in this photograph


In fact, WW1 is probably the least widely studied major war because of the relative timely proximity of WW2 only 20 years later.  However, Veterans Day sprang from WW1 and the universal symbol of Veterans Day, the red poppy flower, came directly from the poppies found in Flanders fields…mostly covering the graves of buried soldiers who had died there.  You’ll see people selling little paper poppies or giving them out and accepting donations today.  This practice started in the 1920’s with disabled WW1 veterans making and selling paper poppies to provide assistance, meals and housing to ex-servicemen.  You pretty much can’t go anywhere in Canada today without seeing a red poppy pinned on someone’s lapel.  To give an idea of how bad WW1 was, the poppies in Flanders became the symbol of WW1 and Veterans Day because of the battles fought in that area.  One in particular, the Battle of Passchendaele, is most often recalled when considering the battles fought in Flanders (western Belgium).  Fought over five and a half months, this one battle cost the English and her colonial allies (Canada, Australia, India, South Africa, etc) over 500,000 and the Germans over 300,000…in an area barely 12 miles long and 6 miles deep.  To put it in perspective, the United States in World War 2, in all theatres of war, for the entirety of the nearly 4 years we fought…lost around 500,000 servicemen.  That is, one battle for 6 months in an area likely much smaller than your local high school district cost more lives than the U.S. lost in all of WW2.  And the Battle of Passchendaele is also known by it’s more recognizable title: The Third Battle of Ypres.  Yeah, 3rd of 4 battles for that same spot.  They did this TWICE prior and even ONCE MORE after Passchendaele.

I mentioned my history degree earlier because Veterans Day is about much more today than remembering the fallen of WW1.  It is to remember the veterans of all our wars and to commemorate the peace their sacrifices bought.  From the Revolutionary War right up through what our servicemen and women are doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan, today is a good time to sit back, reflect and consider all the what ifs.  Like what if:

  • George Washington hadn’t crossed the Delaware and won the Battle of Trenton on the day after Christmas, 1776?  Would the Continental Army have even existed from all the desertions and ever sinking morale?  Would the American Revolution have ended right there in the winter of 1776?  It likely would have. = No America
  • James Madison hadn’t stood up to British pressure on the high seas and failed to declare war in 1812?  Would America have continued to be an also-ran country dominated in North America by the English territories of Lower and Upper Canada whilst being hemmed in on the Atlantic?  Would a fellow by the name of Andrew Jackson remained in obscurity had he not won a decisive victory at New Orleans in 1814?  Would we never have even heard of the Monroe Doctrine?  Probably all true.  = America would probably have never risen to span the North American continent and would have languished as a second rate entity.
  • Abraham Lincoln simply allowed the Confederacy to go their own way in 1861 when he took office?  What if he hadn’t forced the Confederacy’s hand by resupplying Forts Sumter and Pickens (in Pensacola)?  Would he have eventually succumbed to Northern public sentiment against the war and later to failures to beat the Confederacy on the battlefield and allowed there to be TWO Americas: The USA and the CSA?  Most likely. = No USA today as we know it, no strong centralized federal government.
  • President McKinley had held firm to avoiding war with Spain in 1898?  Would we have taken possession of the Philippines and Guam from Spain thus establishing the U.S. as a major presence in the Pacific?  Almost certainly not. = No major American interests in the Pacific outside Hawaii leaving the region to China and Japan.


Before and after

Despite what you may have heard, war can be hard on the landscape. Before and after of a French town, WW1


And those are only a few of the what ifs that relate to American wars over our history.  Had any one of them gone differently we’d have a different USA than the one we had on April 6, 1917, the day we entered World War 1.  From that point on, it was the buildup of fresh American armies in Europe that forced Germany to try a “do-or-die” last ditch offensive to knock the English off the continent and the French out of the war.  By that time, both England and France had been bled nearly white from the preceding years of war.  Had America not been there to help turn the tide, Germany might have succeeded, France might have sued for peace, England might have been confined to her island and America might have been content to sit it out at home.  World War 2 might or might not have happened.  Communism might have been the dominant force in the world with the Great Depression (which also might or might not have happened).  Too many what ifs to consider past that.  Suffice to say, without the sacrifice of ours and others soldiers, the world wouldn’t be the place that it is today.

Does that mean the world today is in great shape?  Of course not…but it could be much worse…and that too is something to be thankful for.  So today, even if it’s only for a moment, consider what the human condition worldwide would be like if it weren’t for the soldiers, sailors and airmen who guided history to the point we’re at today.  Your home, your job, your health, what language you speak, whose money you spend, your ability to cheer, boo or even vote for who governs the country…hell, even whether you’re allowed to have a home or a car or a family…all those little mundane things we all take for granted everyday in this country…those were all earned and secured through the service of other Americans (and, notably, the French Navy at Yorktown but that’s a fact for another discussion) and we should be thankful for their service.  Think about that today.


2 Responses to “Pause for poppies today”

  1. Bodhi said

    I’d love to see a citation for your claim that the Germans had concentration camps in WW1. I’ve read extensively on the Great War and have never encountered this before.

    Thank you.

    • Euroranger said

      It would entirely depend on how you define “concentration camp”. In general, the definition I understand and agree with for the most part is a camp made to hold a large number of prisoners of war, typically characterized by crowding and extremely harsh conditions.

      Prior to the war, whenever enemy combatants were captured, they were held in numerous small camps and were exchanged or swapped with other side for your own captured personnel. WW1, due to it’s size insofar as it involved tens of millions of combatants, immediately swamped the numerous small camps model.

      The Hague Convention of 1907 defined how captured enemy combatants were to be treated but WW1 exposed that almost immediately as insufficient for modern, global wars. In fact, while the Germans were the first to move to less camps but of much larger design, the allies did so as well. The thing that made the German camps so poor was that by the end of the war, the British naval blockade of Germany had been in effect for 4 years and it was total. Starvation in the civilian sector of German society was a real threat and the army was barely getting by with rations. Given that state, you can imagine that the state of the POW camps in Germany was even worse. Interestingly, the Germans liked to group captured soldiers of several different countries together but they liked to segregate the officers from the enlisted in separate camps. The allies pretty much tossed all their captured together into their camps.

      So, as for concentration camps, yes WW1 was the major birth of such large fenced off “camps” as opposed to prisons. The British are often credited as the inventors of the concentration camp during the Boer War in the late 1890’s in southern Africa.

      Finally, I would point you to ready online sources but it appears that such is few and far between on the internet. My exposure to such (and my equal surprise at their existence) came during my college days in German language histories of the Great War in the library. You can find hints and references to the camps but as for direct referencing articles, as is with much of WW1, research and documentation for WW2 is much more readily available. It is notable that the Germans were building such camps in the 1930’s far before WW2 for their domestic Jews, homosexuals, deviants, etc. They didn’t invent the notion in the 1930’s…they simply did what they did in WW1.

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