Where the 19th Century Died

It’s always been said that the 19th century died on the Western Front; the writer Gene Smith said so, in his brief and lyrical account of a winding south-to-north trip, fifty years later. “…Verdun, … the disappearance forever of all represented by France’s glorious uniform of red pantaloons, and Germany’s wonderfully martial spiked helmets. Madelon and Germania flocked to the stations to kiss the warriors— “À Berlin!” “Nach Paris!” — and in the end the trains stopped at Verdun. After terrible Verdun, after the mules drowning in this shell hole here, after the disemboweled boys screaming in this fallen-in dug-out, the nineteenth century was over and history was back on the track for what the twentieth was meant to be.”

Gene Smith got a book out of it, and an abbreviation of that book was published in the mid-1960s as an article in American Heritage, back when my mother maintained a cherished subscription, through all the years of living on Dad’s salary as a research biologist and raising four children, through regular rounds of new shoes, music and swimming lessons and teeth-straightening. Passing strange to think that this was first published when the Vietnam War was gearing up into full swing … and now, that war is almost as far away in time to us as Vietnam was to that earlier cataclysm.  On Old Armand the trench lines wind off in all directions, resembling choked medieval moats. Moss grows from the top of dugouts and there are great piles of rusting barbed wire. It is difficult to walk over the area; the barbed wire hidden in the undergrowth tears at the shoes, and one falls into shell holes . . . Through the holes cut in the thick steel of the machine-gun emplacements—the little doors to cover the holes still swing gratingly shut —the children bend and squint to see Switzerland’s mountains in the haze.”

 I read that particular article over and over, most often reduced to tears by the aching sense of loss, the horrific tragedy of it all. We had our own small family loss to that war, in the shape of a great-uncle whose character, quirks and appearance – outside of a single stiff studio portrait – hardly anyone remembered at all but for our maiden-lady great-aunt whose strapping big brother he had been, before vanishing into the muck and death-in-job-lots on the Somme in July, 1916, as a British-born corporal in the Canadian Army. Of the Somme, Gene Smith wrote; “Along the Somme the best, finest, sweetest of England’s youth perished. They were all volunteers. In their long lines, they rose from their trenches on the first of July, 1916, and strode forward dress-right-dress and died that way—in long, perfect ranks, bayonets fixed, each man just so, with leather polished and metal gleaming. British pluck. That first of July was the worst day in the history of British arms …English people come past the Somme on holiday …Knowing vaguely that Uncle Will died somewhere around here, they halt their cars and go out and wander among the graves … they learn that in this tiny area of northern France there are not tens, but hundreds of thousands of graves. They have grown up knowing that all Mum’s boy friends save Dad died along the Somme, and all Auntie’s, but they have never stopped to think of just how many graves there must be.”

In the summer of 1970, I went on a passenger train from Brussels to Paris – this in the day of the Eurail Pass and Youth Hosteling through Europe on 5$ a day … which now seems about as distant and careless a time as that golden Edwardian afternoon, half a century before I was born. But it was very obvious, as the train crossed through the zone which had been part of the Western Front that something catastrophic had happened there; on either side of that zone, carefully tended farmland – and in the middle, a long stretch of near-wasteland, and a concrete water-tower, raised on legs that had been scarred by a regular line of chips and pocks at some point in the past. “By the monument is a little roadside inn and across the road a winding lane lined with white-painted shell casings from the big guns. All about are flat, empty fields and dripping skies; here and there are concrete floors once enclosed with walls punctured with holes for the machine guns. In some spots a bit of wall is still standing. Everything is very quiet—the shell craters, fields, low skies, the monument, the inn, and Tommy Atkins dead nine hundred and seventy-three times…”

 And then there was Verdun. When I passed through France in the late autumn of 1985, I was moved to make a detour to Verdun, on the strength of Gene Smith’s description. It was a haunted and empty place.  O VERDUN! All along the dull road up from Bar-le-Duc there are concrete posts with concrete helmets on top and raised lettering saying that this is La Voie Sacrée, the Sacred Road. At Souilly, Pétain’s headquarters building is unchanged from the way it looks in the pictures that show him standing on the steps to watch the youth of a nation go northward to its fate. Seventy per cent of the French Army went up this road. Night and day the trucks went grinding by; battalions of men stood and flung crushed rock under the tires so that they would not sink into the mud.

 Gene Smith finished his own tour of the front at Ypres, at the Menin Gate, where the bugles sounded Last Post every evening but for during the years of German occupation in the Second War. His book is illustrated with line drawings and now and again with photographs comparing the ‘then’ of the War, and the ‘now’ of fifty years later.  The road goes eastward, through the dreary little red-brick Belgian towns so like the industrial slums of England, and finally ends at the French border. At the road’s beginning in Ypres is the Gate. They dedicated it in 1927. On the outside facing the road is inscribed, TO THE ARMIES OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE WHO STOOD HERE FROM 1914 TO 1918. Inside: HERE ARE RECORDED THE NAMES OF OFFICERS AND MEN WHO FELL IN THE YPRES SALIENT BUT TO WHOM THE FORTUNES OF WAR DENIED THE KNOWN AND HONOURED BURIAL GIVEN TO THEIR COMRADES IN DEATH . Kipling wrote the words. Underneath them are the names of the Missing. The featured speaker on July 24, 1927, was Field Marshal Lord Plumer … They sat in the hot sun facing the Gate with their backs to the Menin Road leading out to the Salient, and six pipers of the Scots Guards standing on the shell-shattered medieval ramparts by the Gate played “The Flowers of the Fields.” Buglers of the Somerset Light Infantry sounded the Last Post, and to the reporters it seemed as if in the throbbing silence when the calls faded away there must come some sound, some sign, from the Salient up the road. Lord Plumer cried, “They are not Missing; they are here,” and the Mums in their funny hats and long black stockings put their hands over their faces.”


A few days ago, the English Daily Mail posted a series of photographs of the Western Front today, pictures which are every bit as evocative as Smith’s book.



12 thoughts on “Where the 19th Century Died”

  1. Thanks, Dearie – I thought about a link to the poppies memorial … ran out of time. What a beautiful concept and execution – a tide of blood-red poppies, spilling out of the Tower of London, and filling the moat.

  2. I was allowed to sit with the Royal Army Medical Corps at Remembrance Day in Westminster Abbey eight years ago. We sat beneath this window.

    Europe committed suicide with that war. World War II was the second half of a 30 years war but it is over and Europe is in the final throws of dying.

    It is tragic but the will to live has left the West, including the USA, I fear. The barbarians are feeling powerful right now. I am not confident that Asia will be able to take up the task of civilization that Europe and America have carried for a thousand years. It is as if the Persians had won at Marathon or Salamis.

  3. What a splendid experience, Mike K – I’ve been in Westminster Cathedral twice in my life, and only once for a service. One of the other grand church memorials I remember was the transept window, the Five Sisters Memorial in York Minster. I had not thought there would have been so many female casualties among nurses and ambulance drivers, but there were.

    I would urge you – do not write us off just yet, us simple patriots and constitutionalists, those who have a sense of history and a will to be involved, still. Despair is a sin – and those of us with a stomach to fight are hanging in. The results of the mid-terms on Tuesday are cause for hope, after all.

  4. No doubt WW1 was a cataclysmic event – whose effects were felt almost to the end of the 20th century (WW2 – a continuation – the Bolsheviks, the Soviets, et al)

    I did read something interesting though – the sinking of the Titanic just 2 years before WW1 shocked society – thinking that they were in an enlightened age where engineering could overcome anything Nature could throw at man.

    On reflection, and after typing this, of course I have realized that WW1 eclipsed everything.

    And it was entered so casually.

    Most people today are so ignorant of history – but in one day, during the battle of the Somme – 50,000 were killed.

    One day.

    You all might find these pictures interesting – the Somme today – I never even knew about this crater – but thanks to British engineers I think there were 3-4 of them along the Front.

    It was that immovable that it was easier digging a tunnel under German lines and detonating 1000s of lbs of explosives. I think one of them – this one? Was even heard in London.


  5. Bill, thanks for the link. If I go back to France again, I might look for that B&B. When I took the girls to Normandy, we found a nice B&B not far from where Michael Wittman destroyed 14 British Shermans in a half hour. It was a nice central location for day trips to Omaha Beach and Bayeaux.

    Next trip, I may do WWI. A friend, the retired RAMC colonel who invited us to Westminster Abbey, does tours now and he had one to that area two years ago that I would like to have accompanied.

    Celia, I am pessimistic but persuadable. We saw “Fury” last night, hence my concern with tanks. It is well done technically but essentially the same story as “Saving Private Ryan.” The technical details were very good including assigning a clerk as tank crew in 1945 to replace casualties. The tankers suffered the worst although the 8th Air Force suffered for a longer time. US armored units in Normandy had 600% casualties. They were running out of trained tank crews by April 1945, as shown in the movie.

    The story of US manpower is not discussed very much but today may be the day to do it. After the Normandy invasion, the Congress got very resistant to efforts to increase the army and replace casualties. One problem was the (natural) tendency of draftees with high scores to choose anything but infantry. The US infantry was inferior man-for-man to the German army. We had better weapons and supply but the Germans were far better organized on the small unit level. The US army has had a much higher proportion of officers to men than any other army I know of. The Germans ran their army with noncoms, most of whom had had a long experience with war.

    I’m now reading The War Between the Generals by Irving. Aside from having a British POV, it is pretty good.

    I have not read as much about WWI but I do believe that Churchill was right about Gallipoli and the British Navy botched that. Had it succeeded, the trench war might have been abbreviated. And, of course, it was Churchill who came up with the idea of tanks.

    I took my daughter to Omaha Beach and the US cemetery above it. Kids need to see these things or, at least, read about them.

  6. I came in to make a point, but I see Bill B. already alluded to it –

    I say the 19th century ended one April night in the North Atlantic, about 400 miles SE of Cape Race.

    THE story…. THE story, of the latter 19th century was astonishing technological advancement, that puts even today’s world to shame. Go back to 1860, start of the Civil War. In the next 50 years, the average citizen saw: a miraculous telegraph morph into a more miraculous telephone. A transcontinental railroad, followed by a continental rail network. The Panama Canal. Photography, still and moving. Electrification. Lighting. Audio recording. Steel skyscrapers. Automobiles. Air conditioning and refrigeration. Typewriters. Ships made of metal rather than wood. The birth of flight. Computational machines. And of course a radical revolution in military tech. And medical tech. And on and on and on….

    Note that most of these are technologies that directly affected almost all individual citizens lives, AND, that they are spread out horizontally across virtually all spheres of the economy. (Ponder if you will how many radical, individual life-changing technologies we are seeing ourselves that directly affect our personal lives. Now ponder just how many we are seeing that are NOT related to data or communications in any way. Gets harder to count now, doesn’t it?)

    And so many of those technologies were packaged together in the largest and most glamorous technological creation ever…. the RMS Titanic. Which then turned on them and killed them without warning. 30 months of gradually lessening stability later, so much of that same technology began its epic slaughter orgy in Belgium and France.

    The Titanic truly was a 9/11 of its era. It is difficult to overestimate the scale of the story at the time. (The newspapers of the era that I can read in full at the Library of Congress are riveting.) Truly there was a “before” and an “after”.

    And now the latter 19th century still lies there in silence and darkness, two and a half miles down.

  7. Andrew X…but failures of then-advanced technologies were by no means new. Railroads, for example, suffered from a considerable fatality rate prior to the introduction of the air brake and interlocking signaling systems, and even after these were introduced, train accidents were by no means uncommon.

    Why would anyone have really thought that the Titanic, or any other ship, was “unthinkable” to the level that its sinking represented some sort of psychocultural crisis?

  8. A matter of scale. People have died in fires. People have died in building collapses. In plane crashes.

    But 9/11 was an event massive in scale, and arguably changed, if not everything, a great deal, psychologically and culturally.

    The sinking of that ship was, forgive me, a truly titanic event. Just read the coverage of the day, as it was written.

    Thomas Andrews never thought or said it was “unsinkable”, but a great many people believed it, and surely neither the White Star Line nor Harland & Wolff ever went out of their way to tell them they were wrong. A great many people thought Barack Obama was wonderfully qualified to be Chief Executive (but I digress). Large numbers of people are quite capable of believing dumb things for all sorts of reasons. My point is that, train wrecks non-withstanding, the sinking of Titanic was an event far more immense in scale than any such wreck. The Johnstown flood is probably the only non-war related event that comes to mind up to then that was equal in scale. And of course, the Titanic as a story, a narrative, is unequaled, which is why everyone knew it even before the movie, and most Americans outside of Pennsylvania have no idea what happened at Johnstown.

    Titanic was a culture-shaking event, no two ways about it. That is true even if, in the end, it was just a bump in the dark and a hole in a boat.

  9. My Dad, plus us ,were stationed near Verdun in the late 50s.Etain AFB. We lived in trailers on base cause France was ” yankie go home” and all grey , bullet pocked, and sparse. I traveled over the hills to Verdun HS .It was a terrible, twisty road still killing the unwary with unexploded ordinance alongside and curves from hell .The battlefields were grey and moldy with rain. The Tranche des Bayonnets, where men were entombed , in a subterranean trench in an instant.. You can still see the tips though rusty now. Inexpressibly sad , the damp hall were The Unknown Soldier’s coffin was chosen from three nameless slain . I found the sadest memorial the Lion recombinant all alone in the woods..After a while the trip to Verdun got too scary for American kids and I went to a convent.. Where Rommel’s sister was my teacher because she spoke English and could teach me French. I was her penance? have been back many times..It doesn’t get easier.
    We attended General Patton’s entombment in Luxembourg . Nowadays Japanese tourists take photos standing on his grave.The world does little note….

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