Again, yesterday, Mr Market looked up and down and decided to stay more or less where he was.
It was Armistice Day, a holiday here in France. (In the US, we stopped making it a public holiday in 1954.)
In 1918, on 11 November at 11am, the guns fell silent and la grande saignée (the great bleeding) of the Great War was over.
Youth struck down
We were busy in the city. But Elizabeth attended the remembrances in the village of Courtomer in Normandy. Her report:
‘The names of more than 1.3 million Frenchmen who perished in the Grande Guerre are written on monuments throughout the villages and cities of France.
‘The village of Courtomer has its own monument, a stone column with the flame of victory lying sideways — youth struck down its prime, perhaps.
‘The president of the veterans association shook his head gloomily as we walked to the vin d’honneur[drink] afterwards. It was hard to motivate the veterans these days. “Those of World War I have a good excuse,” the mayor gently noted. “They would be over a hundred years old today.”
‘The commemoration started with mass in the church. The veterans gathered behind the altar, flags raised or lowered in rhythm with the liturgy. The priest led the way out of church, and then the veterans and a handful of supporters processed to the Monument aux Morts.
‘The traditional gerbe of flowers was laid at the foot of the monument by the mayors of Courtomer and the nearby canton of Ferrières. Our own mayor of Courtomer gave a short speech evoking the battles of World War I.
‘A little over a hundred years ago in 1915, the second Battle of Ypres left 100,000 casualties, many from clouds of poisonous chlorine gas released by the German army.’
Act of duty
Elizabeth’s grandfather was Canadian. When the war began, the call went out all over the Commonwealth for young men to help fight the Huns.
In a few weeks, young private Owen, fresh from moose hunting in the backwoods of Nova Scotia, was fighting for his life at Ypres. He survived and later flew a biplane. It was armed with a mounted machine gun that had a synchronisation gear (or ‘interrupter’) so it did not shoot off the propeller.
The interrupter was hotly contested military technology. And it was to be protected at all costs. So, when he was shot down behind German lines, the pilot set a match to the gas tank, so the plane would burn up before it could be studied by the Germans.
This act of duty had a terrifying result: The Germans claimed the captured plane was their property and that destroying it was sabotage, for which he could be shot on the spot.
Instead, he spent the next two years in a prisoner-of-war camp.
Ypres was the first battle where poison gas was widely used.
Private W. Hay, of the Royal Scots, arriving at Ypres on 22 April 1915, described what he saw:
‘We knew there was something wrong. We started to march towards Ypres, but we couldn’t get past on the road with refugees coming down the road.
‘We went along the railway line to Ypres and there were people, civilians and soldiers, lying along the roadside in a terrible state. We heard them say it was gas. We didn’t know what the hell gas was.
‘When we got to Ypres, we found a lot of Canadians lying there dead from gas the day before, poor devils, and it was quite a horrible sight for us young men. I was only 20, so it was quite traumatic. And I’ve never forgotten nor ever will forget it.’
The Canadians were particularly hard hit in the First World War. They didn’t know what they were getting into. But they didn’t back down or run away.
One account of an attack across no man’s land by a company of Newfoundlanders was particularly moving. It said they advanced into a squall of bullets ‘as if it were a nor’easter.’ They ‘tucked their chins down and kept moving ahead’ until they were all dead.
What was the point?
Close to 20 million people killed. Property destroyed. Time wasted. And for nothing that anyone could put his finger on. The First World War was such a misbegotten disaster anyone who had anything to do with starting it should be ashamed of himself.
Today, the soldiers who fought in that war are gone. And the soldiers who fought in the Second World War are dropping like the Canadians at Ypres. The handful of old soldiers who came together in Normandy were mostly veterans of the Algerian War — another woebegone conflict.
Today, historians still debate the reasons for the First World War. Americans stop to say ‘thank you for your service’ to military men…generously not asking what purpose it served.
And at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year in St. John’s, Newfoundland surely some old woman’s heart goes cold, remembering the cost of it…
For Markets and Money, Australia