One-hundred years ago, just as World War I ended, the young American soldier could hardly speak without coughing and hacking so hard that he almost passed out.
He was a survivor of trench warfare that was used in western Europe during World War I.
Trenches were dug by both the Allied forces and the enemy forces. The trenches ran for miles in a zig-zag pattern. The area between the trenches was commonly known as no-man’s-land. That area was usually mined and anyone venturing into no-man’s-land was instantly a target for enemy riflemen.
Poisonous gas moved with the winds, so it was released only when the wind was blowing toward the enemy trenches. When the gas was released, the wind would carry the greenish-brown cloud of mustard gas toward the opposite trench.
Usually, soldiers could see the gas coming in time to put on their gas masks, but the toxic gas could still burn their skin, causing injury, sickness and death.
Despite the ban on poisonous gas issued by the 1899 Hague Declaration, men were still dying in the trenches. Well over 1 million soldiers died because of poisonous gas during World War I.
Wilfred Owen, a British soldier and poet, survived the trenches. Later, he wrote the following verses in a poem entitled, “Dulce et Decorum.” It was about being gassed in the trenches. It was about men falling over each other as they struggled to get away from the gas.
Owens wrote, “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling, fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; but someone still was yelling out and stumbling, and flound’ring like a man in fire or lime … Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, as under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”
William Tecumseh Sherman, a Union general during the Civil War, once said, “War is hell.”
Fifty years after the Civil War ended, the soldiers who fought and died in the trenches of Europe experienced a level of hell that was unimagined by General Sherman. The conditions were so horrific they had been outlawed 15 years earlier by the nations signing the Hague Declaration. During WWI, those declarations were ignored.
That was how the war was fought 100 years ago.
In 1971, 53 years after WWI ended, I met that young soldier I described earlier. He had survived the mustard gas attack.
When we met, I was a young respiratory therapist. He was a very sick old man. Over 50 years had passed, but he was still suffering the effects of the mustard gas that flowed into his trench and into his lungs. Eventually, he died of lung disease – another victim of the horrors of World War I.
In 1914, British author, H. G. Wells, better known as a writer of science fiction, wrote a series of articles about the World War I that he collectively entitled “The war to end all wars.” That phrase became a common way of referring to that horrible war. Obviously, fighting World War I did not end all other wars, but the ending of WWI on November 11, 1918 did eventually become the date on which we honor all who are serving, or have served, this great nation.
The truce (armistice) that ended the fighting of WWI was signed at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918. Thus, it became tradition to honor our veterans on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Armistice Day became a national holiday which eventually became known as Veterans Day.
The date of Veterans Day has changed a few times over the years. They even tried making it a Monday holiday, to extend the weekend of celebration, but that seemed undignified.
Since 1975, the official day has been returned to November 11. It doesn’t make any difference what day of the week November 11 falls on – that is the day we honor our veterans.
This past Sunday, our local celebration was held at the Clinton County Veterans Memorial. By tradition, Veterans Day celebrations are timed so the playing of “Taps”, which ends the program, occurs at exactly 11 a.m. I walked over from church to honor our veterans.
Veterans, their families and friends, had already gathered. It was solemn. It was a well-deserved recognition of the men and women who have sacrificed so much in the defense of this great nation.
God Bless our veterans. We should honor them every day.
Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.