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The Guns of August

Bill Benson
August 20, 2020 at 9:00 a.m.

In 1962, the historian Barbara Tuchman published her work, “The Guns of August.” In it, she described the 30 days in August of 1914, when Europe’s governments prodded their countries into a Great War. Germany and Austria-Hungary vs. the Allies: France, Great Britain, Russian, and the U.S.

One of Tuchman’s book reviewers wrote, “The holocaust of August was the prelude to four bitter years of deadlocked war that cost a generation of European lives.”

Indeed, the Great War was horrific, and caused staggering losses, appalling atrocities. Never before had humankind seen the numbers of casualties recorded on the war’s numerous battlefields.

Sixty million men fought over four years, 9.7 million military personnel died, and an additional 10 million civilians lost their lives, due to disease or were caught in the crossfire.

One battle alone, the Battle at Verdun in France, lasted for ten months, from February to December of 1916, the longest battle of the war. Nothing like that occurred in World War 2. One million men lost their lives at Verdun: 450,000 Germans and 550,000 French men. That battle pushed men way beyond the limits of human endurance.

The Great War ended at 11:00 a.m., on November 11, 1918, four years after it began, when several generals signed an Armistice. All of Europe then wondered, “How do we make any sense of the industrialized slaughter we just lived through?”

Jay Winter, a Yale historian, published a book in 2014, to answer that question. He entitled his work, “Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History.”

First, Winter points out that Europeans were alarmed at the excessive number of men who had died in battle but their bodies were never found. Of the 9.7 million killed, half, or over four million men, had vanished, close to the same percentage as at Ground Zero on 9-11. No body means no grave.

Winter also points out that people recognized the irrelevance of the political and religious practices of the time. “Patriotism takes a father who has lost three sons only so far, but not through the night.”

Winter suggests that certain French parents gave up on the Catholic church’s belief in Purgatory. They wondered, “Why must our deceased sons reside so long there before they can arrive in heaven?”

Some gave up on formal theology and turned to E.S.P. and seances to communicate with their departed sons. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, lost his son in the Great War, and he wanted to believe that he could converse with his son during a séance.

Winter also writes that Europeans recognized a need to construct war memorials. Some 38,000 were built in villages across England, and another 30,000 were built in France, during the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Armistice Day is a day of Remembrance in the United Kingdom, but for the French it is a National Holiday. On that day, a French village’s mayor will read aloud each name in a public ceremony at the memorial. The names are most important, because for half of those killed, a grave is non-existent.

In Watts Park, in Southampton, England, a British architect named Sir Edwin Lutyens, designed a three meters-tall cenotaph, a monument to someone buried elsewhere or who had died in a war.

“Lutyens’s cenotaph is in the form of a five-tier tapering stone pylon rising to a platform topped with a stone sarcophagus, on which is draped the recumbent effigy of a dead soldier.”

This cenotaph is unique in that Southampton’s citizens requested that the names of their town’s fallen young men appear on panels on three sides of the pylon. Once a visitor to Watts Park stands close enough to the cenotaph, he or she can read each of the 1,997 names carved into the stone.

Winter says that decades later, in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, a young Asian-American architectural student at Yale, named Maya Lin, happened to attend a World War I history lecture at Yale and heard a professor lecture on Lutyens’s cenotaph in Watts Park in Southampton, England.

As part of one of Lin’s architectural courses, she designed a memorial for the fallen in the Vietnam War, and submitted it to the War Memorial Commission, one of 1,422 submissions.

Like Lutyens, she placed the names on the walls. But then, she aimed one arm of the memorial’s two arms to the west, to the Lincoln Memorial, and the other she aimed to the east, to Washington’s Monument, linking the two.

In 1981, Maya Lin’s design won the competition, but she received a B+ in the class. As of now, 57,939 America boys’ names appear on black granite panels fixed to the two walls, names of those killed in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.

The guns of August in 1914 unleashed a catastrophe for humanity. Jay Winter contends that “this war created a series of wounds that have never healed,” despite a multitude of war memorials. He asks one unanswerable question, “How is it possible to remember the dead without glorifying that war?”