Monday, July 20, 2009

Fading Echoes of WWI

The world’s oldest man died two days ago. Britain’s Henry Allingham was 113 years old ... Imagine all that he saw during his lifetime! My grandmother lived to be 100, having had feet not only in two different centuries, but two different worlds: a childhood in which people still got around by horse and buggy and the dark nights were lit by gas lamps to an adulthood seeing space travel and moon walks – and that with 20+ years still to live! She died in 1991, so she would be 118 if she were still alive today: A full five years senior to Mr. Allingham. That’s not much when you’re talking in terms of centuries.

Like most records, Mr. Allingham’s reign as world’s oldest man (however they verfiy that) was short lived, lasting only one month.

What I find fascinating about the coverage of Mr. Allingham’s life upon his passing is the nearly total focus on his participation in World War I (a now almost extinct résumé item). I guess that makes sense given that he was the second-to-last living British WWI veteran. Reportedly, there are no French, no German and only one American veteran of The Great War still alive ... 68 million participants and maybe only one left!

Mr. Allingham dedicated his many post-war years to ensuring the remembrance of that now distant and largely forgotten, but incredibly horrific and devastating war. Rightly considered by historians to be the first modern war, WWI was also still quite primitive. Despite the advent of lethal machinery, chemical weapons and other agents of destruction, the war was still fought nearly hand-to-hand (or at least trench-to-trench) . Very often the soldiers could see into the eyes of their enemies.

On thing I find particularly fascinating in Mr. Allingham’s obituary is the description of the early fighting planes. The WWI aces took to the skies in contraptions that were only a little more than a decade beyond Wilbur and Orville Wright’s mechanized kite. Astounding! Really makes you think about the things we complain about, doesn’t it?

Despite Allingham’s efforts to remind later generations of the supreme sacrifices made by the soldiers of World War I, The Great War – nor its successor – proved to be “the war that ends all wars.” So, regrettably, the brutally eloquent words of WWI poet Wilfred Owen remain as poignant and necessary today as ever:

The Show
by Wilfred Owen

My soul looked down from a vague height with Death,
As unremembering how I rose or why,
And saw a sad land, weak with sweats of dearth,
Gray, cratered like the moon with hollow woe,
And fitted with great pocks and scabs of plaques.

Across its beard, that horror of harsh wire,
There moved thin caterpillars, slowly uncoiled.
It seemed they pushed themselves to be as plugs
Of ditches, where they writhed and shrivelled, killed.

By them had slimy paths been trailed and scraped
Round myriad warts that might be little hills.

From gloom's last dregs these long-strung creatures crept,
And vanished out of dawn down hidden holes.

(And smell came up from those foul openings
As out of mouths, or deep wounds deepening.)

On dithering feet upgathered, more and more,
Brown strings towards strings of gray, with bristling spines,
All migrants from green fields, intent on mire.

Those that were gray, of more abundant spawns,
Ramped on the rest and ate them and were eaten.

I saw their bitten backs curve, loop, and straighten,
I watched those agonies curl, lift, and flatten.

Whereat, in terror what that sight might mean,
I reeled and shivered earthward like a feather.

And Death fell with me, like a deepening moan.
And He, picking a manner of worm, which half had hid
Its bruises in the earth, but crawled no further,
Showed me its feet, the feet of many men,
And the fresh-severed head of it, my head.

Then, of course, there’s Owen’s most famous lines: “Dulce et Decorum Est”, too.

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