Someone sent me a private message telling me they were disappointed I hadn’t done a Veteran’s Day post. Here it is. I had scheduled it to run on the 12th, on the day it would be observed this year. It was altered after I got the message.
WWI ended on the 11th day of the 11th month during the 11th hour. It is the birth place of Veteran’s Day and is why it is celebrated on November 11th. WWI also gave birth to the US Marine Corps.
During WWI, the marines were a special forces unit within the US Army. At the end of WWI, the Marines were taken from the Army and given their own branch and their own motto. It was all very new and exciting.
Unfortunately, WWI brought lots of new things to the world, most of them not exciting. Mustard gas was used in war for the first time and would be banned as soon as the war ended. Trench warfare had existed in previous wars, but not like it did in WWI. It was “perfected” for lack of a better word. Trenches were lived in by troops, one side trying to wait out the other because it was essentially a stalemate between opposing forces. Soldiers hoped for reinforcements in the form of tanks, because tanks are pretty damn destructive to a trench and the soldiers inside it.
Trenches are dank, cold places where bacteria and viruses run rampant. Even if you didn’t get a bullet, you were in danger of dying from infection if you were in a trench. Frost bite was common, as was malnutrition, dysentery and influenza and god only knows what else.
The horror of the trenches was that you were more likely to die or lose a limb if you got frost bite than if you were shot. Gangrene was a constant threat as was frost bite. The coats and boots of soldier didn’t hold up under the pressures of winter in the trenches. But we couldn’t make and ship these items fast enough. Leaving many US soldiers in WWI left to take what steps were necessary to stay warm. Including removing and wearing the clothing and boots of their dead comrades or the enemy.
There were no time outs where wounded and sick could be evacuated from a trench and taken to a hospital. If you were in a trench and needed surgery, it was done in the trench. Not just US forces, but all forces were doing this. Rarely were qualified doctors in a trench. This meant going old school with a lot of surgeries. A little bit of whiskey for the patient, sometimes morphine if the supply hadn’t run out, maybe a shot for the soldier about to do what needed to be done. A sharp knife, a fire, and a hot pan.
The pan was used to cauterize the wound where the limb had been removed. The hot knife was sterile as much as it could be and sometimes, it would help with sealing the wound. But the survival rate if the gangrenous appendage was left on was zero.
I got to interview a man once that was a trench soldier in both world wars. A dubious honor to be sure. He told me a story that gave me nightmares, one of his buddy’s got frost bite while they were in the trenches in WWI. And while it was most common on the feet, his buddy got it on his hand. They took his damaged fingers. He got an infection, most likely gangrene, and within a few days after he lost several fingers, they had to take his hand. This didn’t stop the infection from spreading though and within a week, he had it in his forearm. The guy’s buddy told them to take his arm near the shoulder, because he wanted to live and he knew if they kept doing it piece by piece trying to out maneuver the infection, he’d probably die from it.
They didn’t have any antibiotics to give. So one day, they broke his humerus with a rock and cut his arm off at the break. I had never considered that. They didn’t have bone saws or knives strong enough and sharp enough to cut through bone. So if they didn’t remove it at a joint, they had to find a way to break the bone. Rocks and gun butts were used most often. And if they couldn’t get the wound sealed with a hot pan, they would have to improvise or the man would bleed to death. Improvised cauterization usually mean sticking the wound in a fire. My horror was about what I would learn next, I had to ask How they got a fire to cauterize a wound. It isn’t like there’s a ton of wood in a trench. If there was, they wouldn’t be getting frost bite in the first place. They would burn whatever they had available when they had to do a battle field amputation, even amputated body parts.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that nearly five million US soldiers died in WWI. Perhaps the surprise is anyone survived life in a trench.
In most of eastern France, there are cemeteries dedicated to soldiers that lost their lives on the battle fields there. After a major battle, the French citizens that lived in that area would come out and bury the dead. They’d take the identification off the body and put that as the grave marker originally. For US troops these were dog tags.
The largest is in Paris, where France built a WWI memorial and dedicated it to fallen US Soldiers who kept France free. However, each of these cemeteries is a memorial on it’s own.