In the center of almost all French villages, there is a monument to the dead of World War I, Morts Pour La France. Usually it is simple, a fighting man, or a column, and a list of the people from the town who died in that pointless struggle. The picture above is from the tiny medieval hill town of Chateauneuf-en-Auxois. There is a list of seven dead, Henri Bouchet, Celestin Tetard, Paul Lenne, Charles Garnier, Antoine Vigot, Charles Ruffin, and Claude Guerette.
Some of these memorials are heroic, but the Chateauneuf statue shows us something more realistic: a young man, face not fully formed, going to die, carrying a flag, and decorated for Feté National by some martial spirit.
WWI was a horrifying disaster. Millions and millions of people died, and nothing was settled. The generals were incompetent, and were themselves responsible for many of the deaths. I have seen the killing fields at Passchendaele. There is no high ground, and the open fields are now rich loam. In the rain, the soldiers going over the top couldn’t move. They were easy targets for the machine guns of the other side. If they fell, they drowned in the muck.
No one can offer a sensible explanation for the war. This site suggests that there were national, economic and colonial rivalries, and adds militarism and a crazy quilt of alliances. The elites wanted a fight, and they roused the citizenry into war. That is all that can be said.
What is certain is that Henri Bouchet didn’t want to die. He wanted to live in his home town, marry his sweetheart, raise a bunch of French kids, and die surrounded by family in his own house. Instead, he was trampled to death in a field somewhere. Antoine Vigot didn’t care about alliances, and Charles Ruffin didn’t have any interest in French Colonies in Africa or the Caribbean. The only French people who cared about those things were the political and economic elites. It was they who brought on the war. It was they who persuaded the lesser people of Chateauneuf and all those other little towns to fight their war for them and their interests.
Everyone knows that, I hear you say. And it’s true: we know it, but we don’t talk about it, certainly before the war starts. Maybe later, when it turns out badly, or in the aftermath of the funerals and the parades, someone quietly mentions it. Mostly, though, after the killing, the survivors go home, and everyone agrees that ugly as it was, it was necessary, and they do it again the next time the elites demand it. It is hard to think of a time when it didn’t happen just like that.
Fortunately, the Father of History recorded one such incident 2,500 years ago. A reading from Histories of Herodotus, Book IV, beginning at verse 11 (my paragraphing).
11. There is however also another story, which is as follows, and to this I am most inclined myself. It is to the effect that the nomad Scythians dwelling in Asia, being hard pressed in war by the Massagetai, left their abode and crossing the river Araxes came towards the Kimmerian land (for the land which now is occupied by the Scythians is said to have been in former times the land of the Kimmerians);
and the Kimmerians, when the Scythians were coming against them, took counsel together, seeing that a great host was coming to fight against them; and it proved that their opinions were divided, both opinions being vehemently maintained, but the better being that of their kings: for the opinion of the people was that it was necessary to depart and that they ought not to run the risk of fighting against so many, 14 but that of the kings was to fight for their land with those who came against them: and as neither the people were willing by means to agree to the counsel of the kings nor the kings to that of the people, the people planned to depart without fighting and to deliver up the land to the invaders,
while the kings resolved to die and to be laid in their own land, and not to flee with the mass of the people, considering the many goods of fortune which they had enjoyed, and the many evils which it might be supposed would come upon them, if they fled from their native land.
Having resolved upon this, they parted into two bodies, and making their numbers equal they fought with one another: and when these had all been killed by one another’s hands, then the people of the Kimmerians buried them by the bank of the river Tyras (where their burial-place is still to be seen), and having buried them, then they made their way out from the land, and the Scythians when they came upon it found the land deserted of its inhabitants.
I don’t think we need a homily discussing the point of that story, now do we?