Thursday, November 11, 2010

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

Today is Armistice Day, or at least it used to be Armistice Day. It used to commemorate the truce, or armistice, that finally ended World War I, which used to be called The Great War, before World War II, which started a bit more than twenty years later, proved that it wasn't so uniquely great at all. And certainly proved that it wasn't The War to End All Wars, another one of its names.

Armistice Day was quite a thing for those Doughboys who had, until the truce that took effect at 11:00 AM on November 11th in 1918 ended the killing, crouched in their trenches and dugouts waiting for the random artillery shell with their name on it, or for the order to go "over the top" and charge into the machine gun fire.

Such artillery! And such an unimaginable volume of fire! A volume of fire such as had never been imagined in the quaint world before 1914. More than eight hundred thousand artillery rounds were fired in one battle toward the end of the war, with the guns on the allied side averaging one for every eight yards of front. The poor Germans, their economy struggling by that point, had only one artillery piece for each 25 yards of their front.

It all seems so quaint now. After all, it occurred more than 90 years ago. Long enough ago for Armistice Day to have been morphed into Veteran's Day and long ago enough so that the original reason November 11th was seen as a notable day has been all but forgotten.

I'm thinking on this in part because Sam and Don and I visited the Fredericksburg Battlefield National Monument on Sunday on our way back home after touring the USS Enterprise on Saturday. Fredericksburg, because it was a Civil War battlefield, is on a scale one can grasp. One can walk a one mile loop trail there and see all of the area on which the most furious part of the fighting occurred. One can stand in the sunken road, which is overall barely longer than the 1000 foot length of the Enterprise, and look down the slope onto the several acres where the Union Army, insanely trying to advance against a perfect defensive position, lost something like 10,000 men in a day, most of them killed within an area smaller than the four and a half acre flight deck of the Enterprise.

Artillery played an important role in the battle of Fredericksburg because of how perfect the defensive ground was for the Confederates. The Confederate artillery officer in charge of the nine guns on Marye's Heights right behind the sunken road assured Robert E. Lee before the battle that, "a chicken could not live on that field." He was a being a bit boastful about his artillery, but only a bit. His artillery, firing like giant shotguns at point blank range; but most of the killing was actually done by the several thousand Confederate troops lined up shoulder to shoulder a couple of ranks deep in the sunken road who fired something like 100 rounds each over the course of the day into the dense packed Union troops that kept madly trying to advance uphill over the open ground.

The deep irony is that those Union troops were never intended to attack up toward Marye's Heights. Burnside, the General commanding on the Union Side, only intended them to advance toward the heights as a diversion to pin down some of Lee's troops while others of his troops attacked a more vulnerable point on another part of the battlefield. The attack on Marye's Heights was all a big misunderstanding.

Just like the War to End All Wars, which was expected by all parties to be over in a few months when it started in 1914.

Update: Naturally I wrote the above and thought about it being Veterans Day; and then I proceeded to go to the post office to send some mail, and I was surprised to find the windows closed. All other government offices are also no doubt closed, and the banks, I guess. Banks, of course, have been so heavily regulated by government since the 1930's that they were probably all but ordered to close for Veterans Day.

Veterans Day is just another day for most of us, even us Veterans. But the fact that holidays are becoming meaningless, including a rant about one of my favorite pet peeves, is a post for another day.

Update 2: Here's a short clip of actual World War I combat footage that I got at the Optimistic Conservative Blog, which is always interesting even though she writes much of her best stuff for Commentary Magazine's site and she's apparently not allowed to also post that stuff on her own site. Opticon has an excellent post about Veterans Day, and she quoted In Flanders Fields, which I was thinking about when I wrote the post above.

No comments: