Commentary

The War to End All Wars: Play It Forward, Then Back

By JIM CURLEY | Nov 07, 2018

What will Indy Neidell do with himself after mid-November? That’s a question making its rounds on the nerdosphere these days. Neidell is the host of “The Great War,” a weekly presentation on YouTube that chronicles each week in World War I – from July 1914 to November 1918 – and does it exactly 100 years later. By late last month, Neidell and his crew had completed 630 episodes, at least one for each week of the war plus many special episodes highlighting aspects of the 4½-year carnage.

Each week, Neidell, ever earnest, wearing a sweater-vest over a short-sleeve shirt, sits at a desk with the implements of the Great War and maps on the wall in back of him. His delivery of facts and opinion, bolstered by reels of vintage tapes and hundreds of old photos, is machine-gun rapid. On land his range is from Belgium to China and on the seas from Jutland to the Falklands.

Given an average of eight minutes per show, Neidell has presented 5,040 minutes or 84 hours on the Great War. That translates into 3½ days of binge-watching, no time out for food or bathroom breaks (oh, and no sleep, either). World War I, it seems, lasted longer than any other event in history, except for the construction of the Great Wall of China (500-plus years) and the reconstruction of the Causeway Bridge from Manahawkin to LBI (May 2013 to who-knows?).

In 2014, I gave talks at both public libraries on Long Beach Island. The subject was the Christmas Truce of 1914. In those early months of the war, the English and probably all the combatants thought that by Christmas their lads would already be by the home hearth, telling “cracking good tales” of their soldiering adventures.

They were wrong. Those who didn’t get killed were lucky if they made it home in time for Christmas 1918. The Christmas Truce of 1914, during which German soldiers left their trenches and intermingled with their English and French counterparts in gestures of fellowship, was a “one-off” never to be repeated.

Early on, it was trench warfare at mud heaps like Ypres. By 1915, armies were on the move, and the grim battle statistics picked up: over 140,000 killed or wounded at Gallipoli, over 300,000 killed at Verdun, and a million killed or wounded at the Somme. Battles turned into months-long campaigns.

In 1917, more than a half million were killed or wounded at Passchendaele. That year, Russia left the war and the U.S. came in. In a little more than a year of actual combat, the U.S. suffered more than 110,000 deaths. Most of those came from disease, most notably from a new entrant in the war – the influenza epidemic of 1918. After an armistice was declared, the victors gathered in Versailles to exact conditions on Germany that would lead to a world war two decades later.

That was Neidell’s detail-driven way of telling the war. There’s another way.

As the 21st century began, there were precious few WWI veterans left. When the last two Tommies, Harry Patch and Henry Allingham, died, Carol Ann Duffy, an English poet, eulogized these common soldiers in Last Post.

The poem begins with a soldier being wounded in battle by shrapnel. The narrator then “plays it backwards.” The Pathé film he is “watching” suddenly rewinds as the bullet returns to the gun that fired it, the “dead” push up from the ground and sprint backwards to the trenches from which they had come.

Soon, as the poet tells it, the British soldiers are hale and healthy – reversed back onto a village square in France warmed with the smell of just-baked bread. Then they embark for England “freshly alive,” Duffy writes. The “resurrected” have great lifetimes ahead of them, free from the constraints of an early death.

But it’s all sleight of mind, a magical neverland, a Halloween that has outstayed its welcome. Duffy’s final lines concede this point:

You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.

If poetry could truly tell it backwards,

then it would.

The War to End All Wars, which ended 100 years ago this week, led not to everlasting peace, but to a ceasefire and to dozens of subsequent wars. Historians like Neidell record. Poets like Duffy eulogize. In their own ways, both bow their heads and remember. So should we.

Jim Curley lives in Ship Bottom.

 

 

 

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