Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Guns Below

At eleven minutes after eleven a.m., one hundred years ago today, one of the many great mass murders that have torn the European continent ground to a fitful stop.
As an American I do not have any real sense for the immense pile of death and suffering that was The Great War (and that in itself is pretty appalling - that the conflict those who fought and those who lived through thought had been, and would be, the most awful war in human history would within a generation be relegated to a mere number) even though my great-uncle was killed somewhere in the Aisne-Marne campaign while serving as a runner for his battalion in the 42nd ("Rainbow") Division. I'm like almost all Americans; any knowledge we have of the war is at a far remove. The trenches have no hold on me. I can read the accounts, the military histories, the poetry and the novels, and understand in a sort of distant way the horrific day-to-day reality of the war.

But it doesn't really affect me.

But for many of the peoples of Europe it was a stone in the chest. It wasn't just four years of ruin and merciless hatred; the Great War dominated political, and many personal, lives for decades.

And some places the War still has not ended; immense mines still lie in uneasy sleep beneath the soil of France.

And there is the Zone Rouge.

And that brings me to the tale I want to tell today.

As an American of the 21st Century I cannot do justice to the horrors that ended a century ago today So, instead, let me tell you the story of the village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont.

In August 1914 the village was just another little farming town in the wooded hills east of Verdun. The census of 1913 had recorded 422 inhabitants: Three innkeepers, a baker-confectioner, M. Simon - who was carpenter, cartwright and cabinetmaker - a shoemaker, three seamstresses, a builder, a tinsmith, five masons, a blacksmith, a baker, M. Tardivat the "inspector of works", a tobacconist (who may also have been the baker, the grocer, and one of the innkeepers or the brother of one of them), and six farmers who owned the land they farmed. And, of course, their wives, daughters, sons, and the various landless laborers who worked for them.

The village lived like the others around it; from farming and vinticulture, and timbering from the wooded hills where the lean gray wolves still watched from the shadows under the trees as they had in Merovingian times.

The fighting of 1792, 1814, and 1870 had passed Fleury by; all that touched it were the sons who returned with tales of battles far away...or never returned at all and were mourned in the old stone church.

Even the battles of 1914 were fought to the north and east, and the families continued to sow and harvest with, perhaps, no more than a nervous glance to where the night-horizon was lit with gunfire. All of that ended on 21 FEB 1916.

It was snowing that morning. The horizon lit with gunfire as the order came from the military district to evacuate. The villagers piled what belongings they could into carts and wagons and walked or rode southwest as the sky between the louring cloud and the frosted hills burned behind them.

They never saw their homes again.
The site of the village - since by mid-summer all that remained were rubbled heaps where the houses and shops had been - changed hands 16 times altogether.

The "powder magazine" (La Poudrière, described as " advanced artillery munitions dump to more quickly supply the field and fortress batteries between Douaumont, Thiaumont, Froideterre and Fleury-devant-Douaumont as well as some secondary munitions dumps...") located near the village was fought over again and again.The village site was finally retaken on 18 AUG, when after ten days of hard fighting Moroccan infantry went in singing the Marseillaise and held.

The site of Fleury is the photo at the head of this post. As you can see, the ruins of the little town have almost disappeared in the succeeding 100 years; only the shellholes remain.

The debris of warfare, particularly the massive amounts of unexploded ordnance including phosgene and chlorine gas shells, had made the entire area next to uninhabitable and certainly unfarmable.
It was included in what was called the Zone Rouge, the “Red Zone”, that portion of northeastern France too badly battered in war for human habitation.

After initial attempts to clear away the mess the Third Republic made the decision to let the Red Zone return to wilderness. Tree plantations were established, and the area let slowly regress into forest and meadow. The grass grew long in the cratered fields, the young poplars and maples formed doghair copses that welcomed back foxes and coneys.
Fleury, and eight other small villages around Verdun, were designated casualties of war – “villages that died for France” – and were honored by a representative in the Chamber of Deputies in Paris that served the memory of places that no longer existed save for as scattered stones in a tormented woodlot.

The area is now managed by a municipal council of three members appointed by the prefect of the Meuse department.

Much of the rest of the old Western Front has physically recovered from the wounds inflicted in the Great War. Even other areas within the old Red Zone have slowly been reclaimed, becoming farms and homes, towns, and even parts of cities as St. Quentin, Soissons, and Loos slowly grow with the new 21st Century.

The old days still take their toll, however; the occasional buried round - the "iron harvest" - is encountered by a disk harrow with unpleasant results, or, less violently, is seen placed carefully alongside the road verge to await the arrival of the Département du Déminage disposal teams.

The old border is a peaceful sort of place where the business of human life seems never to have paused. The old wars seem hard to imagine as lorries full of German machine parts roar west to Brest or French artisan cheese north to Brussels.
But Fleury-devant-Douaumont has never been rebuilt.

The village is tenanted only by the past, the only dweller the silent sleekness of the marten, the only passersby the ghosting wings of the thrushes.

The rustling passage of the hedgehog is all that recalls the lumbering walk of M. Body the grocer, and the owl-eyes the hooded glance of Mlle. Alpert the seamstress, gone these hundred years never to return.

And since the day wouldn't be commemorated correctly without some sort of poetry, here's a war song to listen to while you read the tales of battles long ago.


  1. Thanks for this, Chief. Your words: "The village site was finally retaken on 18 AUG, when after ten days of hard fighting Moroccan infantry went in singing the Marseillaise and held" captures both an utterly alien world and an all too familiar world.

    All through England, every village has a WWI memorial. It really shook up people and such a great sacrifice *had* to be for a great purpose. Right? It changed the demographics of my province Alberta, where all the young British men went off to war and largely never returned, leaving room for the Easter European immigrants like my ancestors to really integrate into the province (modulo a few internment camps.

    Gwynne Dyer has his comments on how to remember war.

  2. It's viciously ironic that here we are.

    A century ago the U.S. president - and I am not a Wilson fanboi by any means - destroyed his political capital in a futile attempt to construct some sort of international forum that would prevent the old nationalist antagonisms from re-creating the disaster that had just ended.

    One hundred years later we have a U.S. president (who in his domestic politics is as racist as Wilson ever was) that proudly proclaims himself a belligerent nationalist and works to destroy those international structures.

    It's like We the People have looked at the lessons of the Great War and deliberately decided to empower the stupidest, most dangerous politicians we could find.

    I'm often wondered at the acts my country has committed; whether they stemmed from malice or just ignorance and hubris. I've seldom been as embarrassed as I am by the government We have chosen as I am now.

    As for war, I'm afraid that the hairless ape seems incapable of figuring out a way to solve its' problems without violence. I want to think we can, but experience doesn't lend itself to optimism.

  3. Well done post!

    Looking on a current map I see that the Douaumont Ossuary is on the north end of what was once Fleury. In that Ossuary lie the unidentified remains of over 130,000 French and German soldiers killed at the Battle of Verdun. All unknown, their resting place never disclosed to their families.

    What might be even more eye-opening is the number of dead civilians in and around Verdun. Where are their monuments?

    1. They are, if there are any, in these "dead villages". I don't think that any polity outside the Soviet Union has found it expedient to officially mourn the civilian dead.

    2. @FDChief: That is not correct. Firs of all: the russian Day of Remembrance and Mourning was introduced in the post Soviet era.

      In Germany the Volkstrauertag (People's Day of Mourning) is used to remember the dead soldiers of the World Wars and all other victims of war and violence. Similiar thing in the Netherland's with the Dodenherdenking/Remembrance of the Dead. In Austria All Saint's Day serves as the day to remember the war dead.

      Even in France where 11. Nov is a day of celebration they mourn the "Mort pour la France" and this includes civilian casualties.

      I do not know enough about the British/Common Wealth and American celebrations and whether they ignore the suffering of civilians. But if that is the case this might be explained by the different war experience these nations had during the 20th century: sending soldiers to fight overseas and no starvation and destruction at home.

    3. Marvin is correct. And in France, not only civilians are mourned, but also villages. Fleury that your post is about and many other destroyed villages were designated as having "Mort pour la France".



    5. I stand corrected.

      Now...that said, how come we don't hear or see these commemorations the way we do the military ones? Seems like they should get equal exposure, given the way the burdens fell on both soldier and civilian alike? It's telling that I - who am probably as aware of this sort of social and political thing as any American - have heard nothing at all about them. I know about the annual commemoration at the Cenotaph in London, but nothing of the German or French civilian memorials...

      Not saying that they're not important, but wondering if that lack doesn't reflect the relative weight the our various cultures put on the burdens of war to those who bear them..?

    6. Wiki claims seven million civilians died in that war. That is not counting the 50 or so million that died of influenza during that same time.

    7. @FDChief: You are a citizen of a global superpower, US culture has been dominant since WW2, English has been the lingua franca as long and the Brits with their "biggest empire ever" and Commonwealth have been in a similar but not quite as dominant position before the US. Don't get me wrong; I would agree that the suffering of the soldiers has overshadowed the suffering of civilians.

      But you guys won, defeated the bad guys and have been on the top of the food chain for a looong time. In addition to that both the UK and US have fought wars abroad that didn't affect the civilian population as much. So it shouldn't really be surprising that you focus more on parades and uniforms and don't know a lot about the little, unimportant and defeated people. :)

    8. Sadly I'm afraid you're right. I know too much of war to wish it on my country. But I fear that the ignorance many Americans boast of war has the effect of making us stupid and dangerous. The memory of a few bombed-out cities might make us a trifle less eager to buy the war-works bullshit our politicians sell to us...

  4. Ael -

    Thanks for that Dyer link.

  5. Nice post Chief.

    The Zone Rouge still amazes me considering Nagasaki and Hiroshima are thriving cities today.

    1. The odd thing about post-nuclear-strike radiation is that it's insanely deadly in the short term but the vast majority of it dissipates relatively quickly. Not all, mind you - the area around Chernobyl is still damn deadly (in fact, if you want to see "creepy" take a look at some of the photos from the deserted landscape there:

      The red zone is more troublesome because of the ordnance; it's physical persistence and the increasingly instable nature of the explosive filling. The gas shells still contain their deadly toxins; the lethality of the contents can't be known until they are ruptured, or detonate, and obviously nobody wants to find out the hard way. Good little essay here about the guys in the Department de Deminage who DO have to go and find them...

      I think the thing that hits me hardest about these "war holidays" - Memorial and Armistice Days - is how the people who tend to suffer the most in war; the families, the citizens and civilians, the women and children, are completely forgotten. That's why the Red Zone hits me so hard; it's a still-living reminder of the people who lost their whole lives to something many of them didn't really understand or want. Many of them moved on, rebuilt their lives somewhere else. But the place they knew best, the place that made them who they were...that was gone never to return.

      The soldiers' calvary is what we remember, though, and what we commemorate. At least they have that.

      The people whose world vanished, never to return? They don't even have that little bit.

    2. Link to the "Forbidden Forest" piece:

  6. Chief,

    Sobering and thoughtful. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

    'That's why the Red Zone hits me so hard; it's a still-living reminder of the people who lost their whole lives to something many of them didn't really understand or want.'
    Aye. You really nail it home here.

    On the flip side of this, seeing the widespread and long term damage caused by the war to France, it makes me rethink parts of the peace process. I think that criticism of the Treaty of Versailles for being too harsh on Germany misses the mark. The war was fought on France due to German invasion and the very land it was fought on has been rendered uninhabitable for a whole century and its still not over. Thoughts?

    PF Khans

    1. The thing that made Versailles so troubling is that the government that played such a big role in starting the war - the imperial regime of Wilhelm II - had already run and hid. The emperor abdicated and fled to Holland, and his ministers resigned. So to the German people it looked like pure vindictiveness and greed; the people who were most culpable got away free and those who suffered the most were punished some more.

      I understand why Clemenceau and France were so implacably vindictive. But understanding and excusing are two different things.

      Bismarck was fiercely opposed to the punitive peace imposed on France after 1870. He considered it a huge mistake that would bind Germany as tightly as France by making the latter a remorseless enemy, and it did. You'd think the French would have learned from that...but the harrowing of the Red Zone, of Verdun, of Chemin des Dames, were just too great.

      They made the same mistake, and paid the same price in the end.

      It never fails to amaze me how many people continue to believe that "war works" despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary..

    2. "the government that played such a big role in starting the war"

      It was not just the Kaiser and his ministers that started the carnage. My take is that the other great powers in Europe also played a big role.

    3. The only other Big Power that seems to have been enthusiastic about war was (unsurprisingly) France. Both Austria-Hungary and Russia continued negotiations practically until the last second, and the British - despite the Entente - came in only when Germany made clear that the neutrality of Belgium was toast.

      Every history I've read stresses that Berlin's intransigence was the linchpin. Not saying the other Powers were guiltless. But the optics, and Wilhelm's history of bluster and belligerence (Willy really was the Trump of his era...), made Germany the fall guy.

      But that wasn't my point. Regardless of who did what, the Imperial government was gone by January 1919. Hanging a punitive "peace" on its successor made Weimar particularly vulnerable to the NEXT German Trump and practically ensured another huge pan-European war. I've heard Versailles described as "the peace to end all peace" and that always seems particularly accurate.

    4. I get your point. I agree. I also agree that the Kaiser undoubtedly had a certain Trumpian sense of masculinity that made him less liable to compromise and more determined to prove himself a strongman. That cockeyed notion is the bain of many politicians, but Trump takes it to extremes. That type of phony macho is a sign of cowardice and low self esteem.

      However my reading of history is different from yours. Austria-Hungary started the whole thing with a declaration of war and the shelling of Belgrade. They did so after issuing an ultimatum laying ten impossible demands on the Serbian government that would have made Serbia no more than a feudal serf. The Serbs agreed to nine out of the ten but apparently that was not enough for Vienna.

      Imperial Russia does a full mobilization despite the fact that mobilization was considered an act of war at the time (kind of like pointing and cocking a pistol, or locking onto an aircraft with a fire control radar today). And the Russian Tsar had many competing interests with Emperor Franz Joseph in former Turkish lands, during those waning days of the Ottomans, who had just lost the Balkan Wars a year earlier.

      The UK was not pure either. Afraid of growing German influence globally, and feared it would become more powerful in both the colonial and naval arenas. They stoked French belligerence.

      Diplomatically, none of them were heavyweights. Too enamored of their self-perceived magnificence to honestly negotiate.

    5. Oh, no. Nobody's hands were bloodless.

      But I think that most of the other players had "other" factors in play. Russia, as you pointed out, was feuding with A-H in the Balkans AND was power-playing the Ottomans. The court in Vienna had problems with their Balkan minorities and a grudge against the Serbs, who FJ thought were stirring up trouble there. The British were bristling against what they saw as German saber-rattling with the dreadnought-building race.

      Germany, though...there was no real reason for Berlin to encourage Vienna to be all cock-strong in the Balkans; hell, the Austrians themselves were (as it turned out, justifiably) worried that their armed forces would have trouble in a real war. I don't think it was some sort of deliberate, Hitlerian desire for conquest. I think it was pure miscalculation (with some deliberate hubris and desire to be badass) on the German political and military leaders' part.

      That and the whole "mobilization" thing - that was a huge disaster that nobody seems to have thought through. Yes, mobilizing the reserves WAS an act of war, because if your enemy mobilized before you - at least, far enough before you - then you were not going to catch up before their full weight came over the border to (presumably) smash you.

      I think most historians now reject the whole "the European powers were dragged into war by an entanglement of alliances" meme that was current after 1919. But I'd argue that a whole bunch of smart people made wrong assumptions and chose poorly based on those assumptions, and more in Germany than most.

    6. You say Berlin encouraged Vienna to go strong in the Balkans? I have never heard nor read of that anywhere. Sounds like something Fritz Fischer would have written in one of his theoretical works on German war guilt. Fischer's theories have been rebutted by Niall Ferguson, Christopher Clark, Sean McMeekin and others.

      Franz Joseph's Foreign Minister and Army Chief of Staff needed no prodding from Berlin. They recommended the elimination of Serbia as a state, and they led the torch parade egged on by Austria's version of the Young Turks. Yes, the Kaiser gave them the famous "blanque cheque" that they would get full backing if the Russians intervened, but only after they sent a high level delegation to Berlin to specifically ask for it.

    7. Eh, Germany stripped northern France and Belgium of anything valuable and left parts of France and Belgium permanently destroyed. They spread assisted in spreading communism and poison gas and all sorts of craziness.
      They also lost and sued for peace in an unconditional manner. They didn't win, but they didn't lose either. Those Weimar German leaders were crowing to their soldiers about how they hadn't been beat almost as soon as they marched home in good order.
      The Allies didn't beat the Germans and the whole of Europe lost 20 million men, the best and brightest. Color me skeptical that any peace could have resolved this situation. 20 years of peace was a pretty good outcome when you consider that Germany could have gone Red and that Poland was fighting wars almost immediately after the war.
      I am always curious what magic peace alternative would have worked long term if you consider:
      a) France, Britain and America won't enforce the treaty in a decade
      b) no one can stand the idea of more fighting in the short term
      The world was broken in 1918 before the peace and no treaty was going to bandage it up. Add to it the overblown expectations that Wilson and the rest had pumped their people and even their enemies up with, and you had a second disaster waiting to happen. Still, it was a solid solution that had the potential to be workable.

    8. mike,
      I think your take on Austria's decision is unfair. Serbia backed a terrorist organization that threatened to break their empire apart. It was a justified decision given that they were investigating culpability and found it. They lost the heir and his wife in a brazen attack that was supported by the Serbian government. Serbia really cost the world a lot with their terrorism, and I don't blame the Austro-Hungarians for retaliating. Austria did a bad job with the ultimatum as far as the optics went, but it wasn't unreasonable given the situation they were in.

    9. I'm hesitant to be to charitable towards Vienna. The Kuk internal policy towards their Balkan provinces was dominated by wishful thinking for the 17th Century when the Croats and Serbs welcomed Hapsburg rule as keeping the Ottomans out. By the 20th Century Vienna's persistent underestimation of the fertile soil those Balkan provinces presented for pan-Slavic troublemaking from Serbia and Russia was worse than a crime, it was a (fatal) mistake. Yes, the Serbs were causing bloody trouble. No, it doesn't excuse the boneheaded stupidity of the Austro-Hungarian government seeing the Serbian ultimatum as a potential casus belli for Russia and going ahead and ramming the Kuk dick into the meatgrinder anyway. Extra credit for the "war on terror" linkage; is seems that "fighting terrorism" is an evergreen excuse for geopolitical dumbfuckery, from 1914 to 2003..!

      Mike, my most recent source for citing German belligerence as fueling Austro-Hungarian intransigence is Massie's "Dreadnought", but I'd be shocked to read anyone who claimed that Berlin was anything but fuel for the war fire. The German Right - which is to say the Imperial court and its partisans - had been convinced for a decade or more that a Great Power war was inevitable. All the various fuckery - Samoa, Morocco, Fashoda... - that the German foreign ministry and Kaiser Bill had got up to was consistent with their pushy brinksmanship in 1914.

      I'm not saying that Germany was the Bad Guy. I'm saying that had Germany not taken the line it did that it's possible the Balkan crisis might have blown over.

    10. PF: Not making excuses for the Weimar government. But it's hard to see how punishing them for the Imperial belligerence was helpful. I'm not sure I agree that 1918 made 1939 inevitable, but I don't see how you can make the case that 1919 was anything but a disaster. Even the other Allies were appalled at Clemenceau's vindictiveness. A less punitive settlement would, at the very least, have made Adolf Trump less likely to succeed as well as he did.

    11. PF Khans -

      I have no major beefs with your 15 November 7:54 PM comment. Except to say that my previous comment was pertinent to guilt about starting the war, and not about what happened after hostilities started.

      As for your 8:01 PM comment. The Black Hand in Serbia that sent Gavrilo to murder the Archduke were definitely terrorists. To my knowledge they were not sponsored by the Serbian government. They were mostly young hotheaded Army Officers and had murdered many Serbs who they deemed not nationalist enough. Including their former king and queen. And they threatened many in government.

      As for Austria, Franz Joseph was a tragic figure: a brother executed in Mexico, an only son and heir committed suicide, and a wife assassinated by an Italian anarchist. FJ himself survived an assassination attempt by a Hungarian Nationalist some years prior to the establishment of the dual monarchy. Perhaps he should have offered the Serbs the same deal he gave the Hungarians. Just kidding, I doubt Belgrade would ever have accepted. In any case, FJ was 84 years old at the time and probably left many decisions to his cabinet. He is said to have written to the Kaiser that a decision for war against Serbia had been made before Franz Ferdnand was assassinated, "and that the events of Sarajevo only confirmed the already pre-existing need for a war against Serbia." Not sure of the provenance of that letter. It is quoted in wikipedia and referenced to David Fromkin's book 'Europe's Last Summer'.

  7. Kinda off-topic, but this past weekend got me thinking.

    Thinking about the Armistice Day fiasco the thing I honestly don't "get" is what Trump gets from all the dictator-love. His man-crush for Putin was what was on display, but he seems to get all swoony for any thug with an army, from Kim to Duterte to MBS to Bolsonario.

    I mean, I understand why he loathes the leaders of the Western democracies; because he's a grifter. To a grifter, you're either the grifter or the mark. There's no such thing as a win-win deal; somebody is going to get chumped. Since the orange rascal knows that all those "other" countries are out to chump him, he looks at the various Western leaders who seem to be coming to him to "make deals" on the level as fellow grifters. Nothing's on the level, and anyone trying to sell him that is trying to chump him, and Trumps don't chump.

    The dictators? Well, I get that he "likes" Putin - because the old KGB officer has him by the balls. Vlad knows all about the money-laundering and the hookers and the tax fiddling and he still smiles and smiles and says nothing. Trump respects that the way a truly small-time crook respects a real goombah, a made guy. Putin's the ruthless mobster Trump would love to be if only he had the guts and the brains.

    But what the hell does Trump get out of loving up to people like Kim in Korea, or Duterte in the PI or MBS in Saudi? These guys are little tinpot dictators in what Trump himself would call "shithole countries". Gaining their pal-ship means, what? Nothing. Trump is the King of America, these guys are nothing but craptacular wanna-bes. It's like the star high school QB wanting to pal around with the head of AV Club and the president of the chess team. It's not like hanging with these guys make him "more popular", which seems to be the only real motivation (outside money and sex) Trump has ever had.

    I could see Trump bathing in THEIR adoration, but loving them back? Why? How does that make him the Big Man On Campus?

    Any ideas?

  8. Gotta love your "Trump respects that the way a truly small-time crook respects a real goombah, a made guy." analogy. You got that one exactly right.

    As to your question. In my view Trump does NOT love them back. But he does admire their ability to screw over their internal opposition and/or anyone they don't like. Something that he is held back from doing here. My bet is that he would give away his first son if he could pull off a hit job on Mueller like MBS did to Khashoggi - or get the popularity that Duterte has because of his extrajudicial killings of drug dealers and personally pulling the trigger on some when he was mayor of Davao - or have the hero-worship cult that Kim has even though he kills those advisors he no longer trusts instead of having to ask for their resignation like Trump has to do.