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by William H. Benson

August 12, 1999 

     It was 1914, and the guns of August exploded that year, sending shock waves that were heard around the world.  The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungary empire, by a Serbian nationalist in the streets of Sarajevo, in Bosnia, just weeks before was the spark that touched off the powderkeg.  Once again, Europe deliberately chose war rather than peace.  We, the living, late in the 20th century, tend to forget how really horrible the Great War was (even though it began in the same place where today’s war is being fought.)

     By the time Armistice Day arrived in November 1918 four years later, more than ten million men had been swallowed up in places like Amiens, Verdun, Flanders Fields, Ardennes, Gallipoli, and Somme.  A whole generation of Europeans were wiped out.  The war was slugged out in mud, in trenches, surrounded by barbed wire, accented by blinding mustard gas.  Like a swirling vortex, those muddy trenches sucked in millions and chewed them into bits.

     Those fortunate enough to live through this meatgrinder and survive strode down different paths after Armistice Day.   

     For example, a 29-year-old corporal in the German army, Adolf Hitler, in the fall of 1918 sitting in the trenches in Belgium suddenly smelled the mustard gas and failed to put on his gas mask quickly.  Blinded, he stumbled up and away from the trenches.  Eventually, he was transported by train to a hospital in Pasewalk, and there he lay blinded in a state bordering on collapse.  His eyes were swollen, his face puffed up.  He irritably rejected the care of the nurses, wanting only to lie still and moan and be delivered from pain, even if by death.

     But the shame of Germany’s surrender on November 11 overwhelmed the young Hitler.  He resolved that if he recovered his sight, he would enter politics, and like Joan of Arc, that night he heard voices asking him to save Germany.  And then the darkness lifted, and again he could see.  Adolf Hitler, the madman, and his crazed drive for power were born that night there in the hospital ward in Pasewalk.

     Another who heard the guns of August was a Missouri farmer, Harry Truman.  He enlisted in the army, served in an ammunition unit, Battery D, and wound up as Captain.  He arrived in France in April of 1918 and left a year later, after the war had ended.  He saw plenty of action, but he and his men lived.  In that year he gained his men’s steadfast respect for his courage and fairness, and they all referred to him as “Captain Truman” from then on.

     Truman enjoyed the Army, the regimentation, the drill, the comradeship, the striving for efficiency in executing orders.  He learned leadership skills on those French and Belgium war fields that he never would have should he have stayed on the farm.  The war redirected him.

     He had left the farmer behind and was returning with a wealth of experience and dozens of friends.  “I’ve always been sorry I did not get a university education in the regular way,” he said later.  “But I got it in the Army the hard way–and it stuck.”

     He returned to Missouri, married, and entered politics, serving first as a county judge, then as a U. S. Senator, Vice-President, and finally President.


     Those guns of August 1914 exploded, and yes, millions of young men, both Europeans and Americans alike, died on the battlefields.  Hitler’s shattering experiences twisted him into a monster, but for Truman it was the genie let out of the bottle who lifted him up and into positions of responsibility.