Every year during this month, on the eleventh day, at the eleventh hour, we remember.
But what, exactly, are we remembering?
Not one veteran of the first world war is still living. Of the over sixty-five million central and allied soldiers who fired a shot in that war, there is not one of them who still draws breath. Think about that.
There is not a single person alive who experienced the horror of the battlefield first hand. Of the hundreds of millions of bullets and shells exchanged in the first world war, there is no longer anyone who actually remembers pulling a trigger.
For our part, we remember statistics, dates, key players, and usually a story or two regarding a distant relative who fought in the war.
Our countries remember glorious victories and heroic deeds. We remember who “won” and “lost”. We remember the names of leaders and generals who led the troops. We remember the rhetoric about our freedom. Men gave up their lives so that we could live free ones.
But are we missing something? Is there something else we should remember?
Too often do we forget it was not statistics fighting the war. It was not the generals and leaders who were up to their stomach in mud, blood and human waste.These were fellow humans, living through terrifying nightmares that our lives of comfort cannot allow us to comprehend.
Historian Dan Carlin refers to it as the “human element” in his fantastic Blueprint for Armageddon series.
These were people like you and I, thrown into the 20th century version of a meat grinder. This was the future generation of an entire world being gambled like poker chips.
In forcing ourselves to face the human element of war, we force ourselves to remember what we have.
Roughly 18 million people died in the first world war alone. To put that into perspective, take the two biggest cities in North America (Mexico City and New York) and then imagine every single person in both cities being wiped off of the face of the earth. Our minds simply cannot conceive how much life was lost during those four years.
Entire neighbourhoods of men signed up together, and were slaughtered together. Think of a group of your closest friends, people you grew up with and love like family. Brothers from another mother; sisters from another mister. You may think of team-mates, neighbourhood besties, dance-mates, the list goes on. I think of a group of brothers I grew up with in the cold rinks of Canada.
Now picture the group of you, walking miles in a wasteland. Think Mordor, the aftermath of Hiroshima and Dresden, or the Moon. You shiver as the cold spring rain beats down on your group. Bullets whiz past your heads, and shells are exploding all around you.
On the first day, half of your group is killed by a single shell. Their body parts litter your trench but you’re uncertain what leg belongs with what torso, so you don’t bother with the pieces of them.
Your closest friend of the group goes insane within days of your arrival because of the constant pounding of artillery and screaming of machine gun fire. That friend is accused of cowardice by your superiors for his refusal to control himself, and is executed for it. You know he wasn’t a coward, his mind had just been incapable of accepting the horrors all around him.
The rest of you are sent over the top of the trench which, like the last fourteen attempts, ends in complete failure. You fall into a hole carved into the earth by an explosion and hide there, hoping the enemy doesn’t jump into the cavity and gut you with his shiny new Nahkampfmesser made of the finest German steel.
At dusk, you hear one of your last remaining friends screaming in pain and crying for help. He’s bleeding out in no-man’s land. Just as you build up the courage to try to save him, you see another friend you had no idea was still alive dart across the barren waste in your injured friend’s direction. He is immediately cut to pieces from machine gun fire. You lose your nerve.
Darkness falls. You rush out into the field while the artillery fireworks light up the night sky. You find the friend who had been crying. He’s dead. His own fist is shoved down his throat. You realise that he had seen one friend die because of his screams, and didn’t want to see another, so he gagged himself with his own hand. You remove the letter he wrote to his fiancée back home, who is pregnant with a baby girl, and you run back to the trenches.
Everyone you arrived with is now dead. It hasn’t been a week.
By the end of the war, this will happen to thousands of people. Some will witness people grasping at their throats, eyes bulging, as they fight for the air that chlorine gas is suffocating out of them.
Some will look into the tear filled eyes of barely eighteen year old boys gasping their final breaths. Some will see men wrapped up in barbed wire and covered in bullet holes. Most will smell the stench of millions of rotting corpses. Many will starve or freeze to death. This is the human element.
And yet, for the most part, these people dug in their heels and kept fighting. The romance of war had long been shattered by the horrific scenes they were forced to endure, and yet these men trudged on. They weren’t stupid, but they felt they had no choice. They were terrified. They believed they would die.
And yet they showed a resilience that is the truest testament to the strength of the human spirit. Let us remember that these were the people that, after witnessing humanity completely shatter itself, had to pull up their boots after the fighting was done and put the pieces of civilisation back together again.
But I can’t help but ask, how would we have handled it? We in the west have lived in relative peace for a long time. We have no great war to fight, no existential threat to truly fear.
In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons.” Herodotus, The Histories.
We think poor WiFi signal is a problem, or that it’s preposterous when we don’t get a strong cell phone signal in our apartment. We think the weekly grind is a struggle, and our weekend spin class is torture. We think we’re hungry when it’s 6 pm and we haven’t yet had our third meal. Many of us can hardly handle the loss of a dog or a cat, how would we react to witnessing millions of humans being slaughtered in front of us?
So what, exactly, are we supposed to remember?
We remember all that they lost – in the most tragic and sickening of ways – so that we may appreciate all that we have. We remember the darkness they were forced to endure, so that we may embrace the light. We remember the senseless hatred and violence so that we may promote love and laughter.
Let us remember the horror our fellow humans endured, so that we may never again do it to each other.
In putting ourselves, as best as we can, into the shoes of those who walked in the trenches, we’ll realise that we actually have a lot to be thankful for.
And to the soldiers who walked through hell, we thank you and we remember.
Be good to each other,