Friday, November 11, 2011


The War to End All Wars, also known as the Great War, also known as World War One ended 93 years ago today. The document ending the war went into effect famously (at the time) at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Until 1954 this was referred to in the US as Armistice Day. But, as time passed by, that phrasing began to mean less and less to anyone. All things pass.

So, now this is Veterans Day; certainly a worthy holiday to honor those who have served our country in all wars. But, today I am not thinking of all veterans. I am thinking of those who once walked this Earth that experienced the great battles of the Somme and Verdun and Gallipoli. These were battles of almost unimaginable magnitude during that war.

The military art of war adapted very slowly to the technological achievements of that time. Supreme among innovations here was the use of massed, large-caliber artillery pieces and the widespread use of mounted machine guns. As World War One settled into a classic war of attrition fought in well-prepared trenches separated by “no man’s land”, generals continued to order massive artillery barrages to “soften up” enemy positions before waves of infantrymen charged toward the bombarded territory only to be ravaged by a hail of machinegun fire.

It was a horrible, hopeless, and horrendously bloody slaughter of hundreds of thousands of humans tossed away by the tide of events guided by the antiquated thinking of their leaders. If an attack failed it was obviously because the position was not “softened up” enough. So, artillery barrages grew ever larger and longer, the charges ever bigger, but the machineguns were brought back into position in time for most assaults to be made of the face of more bullets than had ever been concentrated a given area up to that time.

Armistice Day was to commemorate that specific kind of human suffering. Our destructive potential would grow to monstrous proportions by the time of the Second World War but the interesting thing is that suffering is equally horrible in all wars, no matter if you are talking about spears or rifled muskets or rapid-fire weapons or atomic bombs. The difference is only a matter of numbers. The wounded all cry out with equal despair, the dead are equally tragic.

I will have to live to be 152 if I am going to accurately entitle another blog post what this one is dubbed. Not a likely scenario, but there’s hope. So, my mind is more focused on the expanse of Time today than simply on the forgotten name of a changed holiday honoring human bravery under fire. I am thinking back 100 years, to before the Great War, to 1911, the last time this date was routinely written on bank checks. Just out of curiosity, I am wondering what the world was like then in those years just before the automobile and the telephone and the airplane became so common as to change collective human experience.

The last time anyone was able to date something on 11/11/11 the average life expectancy for men in the United States was 47 years. Only 14% of American homes had bath tubs. Only 8% of households had a telephone. There were a total of 8,000 automobiles in use and what little fuel there was available for them was sold in drug stores. These same stores also legally sold heroin, marijuana, and morphine. Gives a whole new meaning to the term “drug store” doesn’t it?

Not a tremendous number of historic events took place in 1911. Superconnectivity was discovered. The Mexican Revolution and the Italo-Turkish War were the bloodiest conflicts going. The latter war featured the first aerial bombings in history. The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. An airplane successfully landed on a ship for the first time. The 11th edition (fittingly enough) of the Encyclopedia Britannica was published. Explorers stood at the South Pole for the first time in human history.

Just for fun, I looked up 1911 World Series. It went seven games that year. It featured the Philadelphia Athletics managed by the great Connie Mack against the New York Giants managed by the great John McGraw. The two winningest managers in baseball history, right ahead of the now retired Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox.

In addition to being a well-played, close series much like the 2011 Series I posted about a few days ago, it also has the distinction of being one of the longest Series’ to play from start to finish. Games Three and Four were separated by six consecutive days of rain. One of baseball’s greatest all-time pitchers started three games in that series. Christy Mathewson lost twice and won once as the Athletics took the Giants in no small part due on two timely home runs hit by Frank Baker.

Ronald Reagan was born in 1911. So was Jean Harlow, Lucille Ball, Gypsy Rose Lee, Vo Nguyen Giap, and Jack Ruby. The fading of all these personalities and public figures from the zeitgeist of the perpetual Now is a good way to judge Time as distance. It is a long way back to 1911 and the remaining karma from that Time is trivial and largely dissipated. No one I know about nor likely any of my readers have ever heard of died in 1911. There’s no fame in that regard.

Turning back to the original reason for this post, few famous persons died as during World War One. Manfred von Richtofen (the Red Baron) is the only one I know of. The few other names that can be mentioned like Mata Hari and Lord Herbert Kitchener mean nothing to us these days.

True baseball fans remember who Christy Mathewson was, however. To that extent, he might be the most famous casualty of World War One. He volunteered for the army in 1918 and served in the “Chemical Unit” overseas with Ty Cobb. Mathewson was accidentally exposed to poison gas during a training exercise and developed tuberculosis. His lungs never recovered and he never pitched another game of ball. He died in 1925. Both teams honored him in the 1925 World Series by wearing black arm bands.

At the time of the First World War, untold numbers of human beings suffered as a result of death and destruction and the effects it had on extended family and friends. The war was the greatest single shock Europe had ever experienced since perhaps the Black Plague. It led to the founding of the League of Nations and the hope that there would be no more wars. That proved too idealistic, however.

Today, suffering on such a scale is unimaginable. Thank goodness. We certainly have our share of worldwide problems. For one thing we just recently added our 7 billionth person to the planet. This will be the root cause of many difficulties ahead.

Nevertheless, by and large, the lives of most human beings today are far better now than they were then. So, for me, November 11 is not such much about remembrance as it is about appreciation. And hope that in the unlikely event I make it to 152 our experiences today will seem as silly to me in that future time as does the fact that automobile gasoline used to be sold in drug stores.

The journey from 1911 newspapers to the 2011 internet might lead to virtual realities by 2111. This, too, is a way of viewing Time as distance. Consider the change from 1811 to 1911 to today. Sure, there’s room for improvement on the specifics. But, you have to admit, the general flow of things is going along pretty well. I am not one who happens to believe we will wake up 100 years from now and find ourselves in a new dark age.

No comments: