Reflections on Veterans Day—November 11th
Originally Known as Armistice Day in the United States And Still Known As Remembrance Day in England
My “Joys and Concerns” Statement: First Unitarian Society of Madison, October 26, 2008
I light this candle in the spirit of the approaching All Souls Day and several weeks from now Veterans Day—as children we knew it as Armistice Day---
To my wife Sally’s father James W. Porch who 90 years ago this month (October 1918) served as a First Lieutenant and Company Commander in the 5th Infantry Division. He led his men in the fierce fighting of the Meuse-Argonne Campaign that took place during the final six weeks of World War I. That brief campaign resulted in 125,000 American casualties, among them 26,000 killed in action. Sally’s father survived but he would never talk about his wartime experiences.
To an older brother Jim who in World War II served as a Sergeant in the 34th Infantry Division and fought in the brutal Italian campaign. He did not survive. He was killed in action 65 years ago tomorrow, October 27, 1943. He was awarded posthumously a Silver Star for his bravery. He is buried in the Rome-Sicily American Cemetery in Nettuno Italy.
These are memories that will never fade away.
November 11th reminds of us again of war and the tragedy of war, of the many Americans killed or wounded who served in our military forces during World War I and World War II, and of those who served, and continue to serve, and suffer, in our subsequent “wars”—Korea, Vietnam, Gulf, and now Iraq and Afghanistan..
My memories of war and the poetry of war go back to elementary school. We regularly commemorated Armistice Day with a program of poetry and songs. Through poetry we encountered our first exposure to war and death by reciting such well-known poems as “In Flanders Field” or “The Soldier.” Through song we celebrated our nation and its people with patriotic favorites such as My Country ‘Tis of Thee and America the Beautiful, and perhaps a World War I song such as Over There. Our programs ended just before the sacred hour of 11 a.m. when factories all over town blew their whistles to signal a two-minute pause to remember the end of the “War To End All Wars.”
The brutality of World War did not dawn on me fully until I served in the Korean War (1951-53). Rather than being sent to fight in Korea, I became a member of the U.S. Army military mission to Turkey. There we worked to help modernize the Turkish Army and train soldiers who went to fight in Korea. While stationed in Iskenderun on the Mediterranean Sea coast near the Syrian border, I came upon a small cemetery containing the graves of French colonial troops killed late in World War I. It was so sad seeing the nameless decaying headstones with their inscriptions “Here lie five French soldiers from the Cameroons who died in battle” It was even sadder thinking about these young men dying so far from home and leaving their families wondering what ever happened to them.
While on leave in Europe I came upon numerous cemeteries from both World War I and World War II. Visiting the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno Italy had special significance for me. That cemetery contains the remains of more than 7,800 American soldiers and airmen killed in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Like other American military cemeteries, this one is beautifully laid out and maintained. What immediately stands out are the gently curved rows of white marble crosses, each listing the name, rank, unit, home state, and date of death of those who lie there. Interspersed among them are the graves of the unknowns. So many died. Yet they rest so peacefully in this remarkable setting.
In later years I experienced similar feelings when visiting other American cemeteries as well as English and German cemeteries. Among those American cemeteries were the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery with its more than 14,000 graves of those killed in World War I and the Netherlands-American Cemetery in the village of Margarten, near Maastricht with its more than 8,300 graves from World War II.
These visits heightened my already strong interest in learning more about war and its human consequences, particularly World War I. Contributing to that interest were several encounters with World War I veterans. I remember well a chance encounter in 1960 with a Canadian World War I veteran who fought in the battle of Ypres. As he climbed out of the trench to join the charge, a machine gun bullet ripped into his arm, knocking him back into the trench from which he had barely emerged. Unable to hold a rifle, he was evacuated to England for surgery and never could return to battle. On arriving back in Calgary after the war, he learned that he was the sole survivor among the 99 young men who rushed off to enlist when the war began.
By this time I had already read sobering accounts of major World War I battles: Verdun, the Somme, Passchendael, Gallilopi, and others. The battle of the Somme resulted in a terrible slaughter. Imagine, 59,000 English casualties in the first day of the battle, among them more than 19,000 dead! Well-entrenched German soldiers manning the new weapon of mass killing—the machine gun—proved difficult to dislodge. And the generals, living in comfortable chateaus well behind the front lines, had no understanding of the frightful conditions under which their men fought. These conditions are described in rich and depressing detail in both the poetry and prose of the war. Poems by Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, John McRae, Wilfred Gibson, and others. Prose by survivors, among them Robert Graves in Goodby to All That, Siegfried Sassoon in the Diary of An Infantry Officer, and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front .
More Thoughts on Veterans Day: The English Poets of World War I
Here is a selection of World War I poetry for contemplation on what I still think of as Armistice Day. These poems convey the tragedy of the Great War 1914-1918. English battle deaths came to almost 900,000 dead and more than twice that number wounded, many severely. The effects of the war had a devastating effect on the fabric of English life in the 1920s and beyond.
These poems can speak to us in meaningful ways as we now find ourselves engaged in two wars, one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan.
Forest and Valerie
On your recommendation, Valerie, I purchased copies of the Pat Barker series on WWI. I have not yet had time to read them but hope to do so soon.
I want to reciprocate by telling you about the three Vera Brittain books. The first, Testament of Youth, Martha read years ago and has always recommended. It was not until I put together my essay with accompanying poems about Armistice Day that I read an excerpt from her book; the exercept was published in Paul Fussell’s Norton Book of War (19 ).Incidentally, we spent an enjoyable evening with him and his second wife at our house. A good friend of Sally’s knew the second wife but felt awkward about trying to entertain them in her small place, so we stepped forward. While here he also gave a book talk. He is a crusty old guy who long taught at Rutgers University. He has written a couple of books about his own WWII experience as well as the highly acclaimed book The Great War and Memory of War.
Early in December I decided the time had come to read more of Brittain’s work. For some reason, I began with her moving War Time Diaries 1914-1918 and was so taken with her writing and what she had to say that I moved on to read her most famous book, Testament of Youth. This was the first book written by a woman about World War I and draws heavily on her diary.. She began writing her diaries, at least what was published, while in high school. There she became acquainted with three of her older brother’s friends, fell in love with one of them, went off to Oxford, and then the war began. She left college to became a nurse and might well have married her finance Roland at December 1915 when he was to arrive home from France on leave on Christmas Day. Instead, a phone call came that he had been wounded and died in a field hospital. Subsequently, her brother’s two best friends were killed, and eventually her brother was killed fighting in Italy. All the while she served as a nurse, first in England, then Malta, then France, and finally back in England. After the war she returned to Oxford to complete her schooling and begin her career as a writer. She marries in 1924, has two children one of whom is Shirley Williams who help found the ill-fates Liberal Democrat party as a counter to Thatcherism. Her married life and career are detailed in her book Testament of Experience.
While at Oxford she met a kindred soul who was also an aspiring writer, a woman named Winifred Holtsby, whose life was snuffed out by Bright’s disease (a renal disease) in her mid 1930s just when she was beginning to establish a reputation as a novelist. Because they had been so close, Vera Brittain wrote a fascinating and detailed biography of her friend–it was called Testament of Friendship.
What a wonderful experience it has been to know this remarkable woman. She writes with great skill, is very revealing about her thoughts and fears, and has a keen way of sizing up people. She became widely known as a journalist, novelist, and pacifist. She saw early on the rising menace of Fascism, the emergence of Hitler and the Nazis, and like so many others sensed the inevitability of war.. The two books about her life are both long about 600 pages each, and the bio of her friend Winifred is probably about 400 pages. But, all of them make fascinating reading.
One other theme running through her writing is the problem faced by women trying to carve out a career in a man’s world, as well as the conflicts facing women about how to balance their careers with family life. Her books have been re-published in the 1980s and 1990s because of their interest to women’s studies programs.
After reading well into Testament of Youth, I decided to order that book and its sequel. Amazon carries both of these books, and the Amazon website lists some of the comments made on Britain’s books. They are worth reading.
Robert Crombie (ed.). Where Steel Winds Blow: Poets on War: A Collection. New York: David McKay 1968.
Brian Gardner (ed.). Up the Line to Death: The War Poets 1914-1918: A Collection. New York: Clarkson Potter Inc. 1964.
Paul Fussell. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford. 1976.
Paul Fussell. The Norton Book of Modern War. New York: Oxford. 1991.
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About the Author
At age 92 I decided to showcase my recent and current writings on a variety of topics outside of my career interests as an economist. My wife Sally’s dementia, my experiences of war, and my interests in improving higher education all compel me to write.
For most of the last decade I maintained a low profile, necessitated by my wife Sally's suffering from a decade-long siege of vascular dementia. After she passed away several years ago I wrote about our experience, in the belief that this would be helpful to the many others who suffer from dementia and their family caregivers. I am currently seeking a publisher for my book manuscript: The Forgotten: Dementia and the Right to Die.
Over the past few years I began working on several other writing projects that are described more fully elsewhere in my blog. These include a nearly-completed book manuscript on my "expected proficiencies approach to the college major'' as a vehicle for reinvigorating liberal education. I continue to write on the shortcomings of UW-Madison's affirmative action policies and programs that over the years have been renamed "diversity and inclusion" policies and programs.
Within two weeks of my graduation from UW-Madison in June 1950, the Korean War broke out. I was drafted and expected to be sent to Korea to join our fighting forces there. But instead I was sent to Turkey for 18 months. How lucky I was. I am also writing a memoir of my Korean War military experience when I served as an U.S. Army adviser in our military aid program in Turkey.
Until I began branching out beyond economics, I failed to realize what a profound effect the Great Depression and World War II had on me as I grew up. I have already captured some of these recollections, with more of them to follow.
With that introduction, I turn you over to my blog entries as well as my other writing projects described more fully elsewhere in my blog. Best wishes ~ W. Lee Hansen
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Award-winning author W. Lee Hansen, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Full bio.