Today is Memorial Day 2016 here in the United States as people pay homage to Americans who died in service of our nation. Picnics, parades and tire sales will mark the day from seas to shining sea. Meanwhile, across ′The Pond′, France and Germany held a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun. World War One′s bloodiest battle on the Western Front. The fighting started on February 21, 1916 and went on through December18. During these 303 days, around 700,000 French and German soldiers were killed and over a million were wounded. In the end, the battlelines had hardly changed with Germany gaining only a couple of kilometers of ground. The French Army was spent and its morale was devastated.
The Battle of Verdun was massive. Slaughter on a wholesale, industrial scale. Like other battles during World War One, success was measured in yards and feet at the cost of thousands of lives. Germany launched the offensive with the purpose of slaughter. Their goal from the beginning was to cause so many casualties that it would break the French Army. In many respects, the goal was achieved. At one point, many French units went on strike, refusing to fight anymore. French generals made examples of soldiers, including many junior officers, shooting them after facing trials for cowardice. The classic Stanley Kubrick film, ″Paths of Glory″, was largely based on the fighting around Verdun.
Trench warfare was horrific. Not just during the fighting, either. Life in the trenches on a peaceful day was misery enough. Health conditions were awful. Rats plentiful. Exposure to the elements of nature and to those of enemy artillery diminished soldiers on a daily basis. Even rotating troops from the frontlines to rest and recover in a rear area did not help much. The physical toll was bad enough, but the mental cost could never be fully measured. In the end, the whole thing was one massive waste of men, material and time.
America entered WWI just in the nick of time for the Western Allies. By the end of 1917, Russia had signed a peace treaty with Germany and the Central Powers after the Bolshevik Revolution. Well before that, the Czar′s army had crumbled into disorder and chaos. In 1917, the British were about the only allies who could keep any sort of offensive operation going against Germany. Thanks to the development of the tank, and the Canadian Army inventing new battle tactics for the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the Western Allies held on long enough for America to field an army in France. Just in time to beat back one, final offensive launched by Germany in 1918.
So on Memorial Day 2016, while you are picnicking, barbequing, or buying a new recliner at a sale, please take a moment to think of the brave Americans who gave their lives for our freedoms. If you can spare an extra thought, think also of the French and other allies who have died while fighting tyranny. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun, possibly one of the most horrible and bloody battles in human history. In many ways, those who died there also died for us as well.