Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 25, 2014

Ghosts of "The Great War"

In early June, husband Art, daughters Mariya and Katie, Art’s cousin’s children Hannah and Ryan, and I drove slowly through the woods a few kilometers northeast of Verdun, France. Each gap in the trees along the meandering road was covered by a green carpet of grass.

But some of these openings had an unevenness to the ground that was clearly unnatural. They were depressions that had been created by blasts of mortars and artillery shells. Almost a century earlier, those now quiet grassy spots were killing fields of some of World War I’s bloodiest battles.

When I was in school, the teaching of history ended somewhere after the conclusion of our Civil War and the beginning of the “Great War.” So my awareness of what precipitated the fighting in Europe was limited to knowing that a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie of Austria.

The reasons this incident led to a global conflict were complex. The simplest explanation is that many of the world’s great powers were looking to expand their territories at the expense of the waning Ottoman empire. To avoid war, alliances were formed to discourage any one of the major players from attacking another. But the weaker countries were seen as fair game. When Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, the neighboring Serbs were incensed, leading to the assassination.

On July 28, 1914, one month later, Austria declared war on Serbia. The framework of alliances that had kept a fragile peace for nearly a century now served to pull one country after another into the fray. Both sides were openly confident that victory would be theirs by Christmas.

Initially, Germany and its partners experienced some success. But as its enemies responded, the conflict quickly turned into a stalemate. Machine guns and disease produced a steady drain on the manpower on each side over the next three years.

We saw remnants of the “war to end all wars” - trenches, barbed wire, forts and cemeteries with row upon row of grave markers. We stopped at Fort Douamont, the largest and highest fort on the ring of 19 large defensive forts that had protected Verdun. More than 16,000 French soldiers are buried in its cemetery, and the Douamont Ossuary holds the jumbled skeletal remains of some 130,000 French and German fighters.

By 1917, trenches stretched from the coast of France to Switzerland. They were wonderful places to breed and transmit diseases. A new malady - trench fever - appeared. It wasn’t fatal, but made a soldier too weak to fight, and recovery took a month or more. Speculation is that one reason the war lasted as long as it did was that almost 100 percent of soldiers were at some time infected, often leaving whole forces too depleted to engage in battle.

But 1917 saw a change. Russia left the battlefield after the revolution at home brought the downfall of the Tsar and the birth of the communist state.

The death of 128 Americans from the torpedoing by a German submarine of the Royal Mail Ship Lusitania is often cited as being the reason the United States became involved. In fact, it was the disclosure that Mexico had been asked to join the war on the German side. In return, Germany would see to it that our southwestern states would be returned to Mexico. U.S. opinion began to shift with this revelation.

Art’s cousin Claudia knows a bit about our involvement in World War I. Her father Claude entered the conflict in 1917 when he was 22. She doesn’t recall whether he was drafted or enlisted, but she said he had only three weeks of Army training before leaving for France. His father had owned a slaughterhouse and butcher shop, so Claude was put into a butchery unit. He was accustomed to slaughtering cattle and pigs in his native Wisconsin, but in France, he also had to process horses for the meat. He eventually rose to the rank of sergeant.

Like thousands of others, Claude contracted the Spanish flu that killed so many during and immediately following the war years. He spent an extended period of time in a military hospital in France.

“People were dying right and left,” Claudia said. In the hospital, “as people got sicker, their cots were moved closer to the door. My Dad was in the second cot from the door, and then he started going back the other way as he started to recover.”

Claude returned to the U.S. where he spent time at the Muirdale tuberculosis sanatorium near Milwaukee. He improved and eventually became a strong and healthy man.

Of the men mobilized to fight the war, Austria lost 90 percent, Russia and France lost better than 70 percent, and Britain, 35 percent. In contrast, America lost seven percent - the smallest fraction of all of the major combatants. But the presence of U.S. forces tipped the balance and a war-weary Germany and its allies were pushed back.

Art’s mother Donna had one clear recollection of World War I. When she was 8, she and her family were standing at the train station in Appleton, Wis. They were there to wish her cousin Roy well as he embarked on his journey to join the war in France. But as they were waiting for the train, the bells of all the city’s churches began to ring. It was Nov. 11, 1918 and the bells meant the war was over. Roy could go home.

After the war, someone walking near where the 137th French Infantry Regiment had been positioned saw rifles with bayonets still fixed protruding from the ground. Upon excavation, a soldier was found next to each. Artillery had buried them in their trench. Many places, barbed wire and twisted pieces of metal still protrude from the ground. These are all reminders of what happened in the fields near Verdun.

Still, Mariya said she was amazed that nature has reclaimed so much of the landscape. The trees were green with their early-summer leaves. Blooming wild flowers and grass filled in the bomb craters. And “No man’s land?” It's now just another quiet place.

Lower left: Ossuary containing the remains of 130,000 French and German soldiers stands behind the cemetery; lower center: face of the fort. Barbed wire can be seen at the top of the ridge. Because both sides held the fort at different times, both the German - left - and French - center - flags fly next to the European Union flag; lower right: Claude Kaderabek in his U.S. Army uniform; top: a man walks among the gravestones at the ossuary.

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