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Clio's Temple

The things we remember

It's probably inevitable, given the fact that we are in the midst of the centennial of World War I, that a number of highlights or lowlights of that epic slaughter get special mention. Today, at the midpoint of 2016, Europe observes the 100th anniversary of the First Day at the Somme.

In a war that saw many days of horror, July 1 is particularly infamous in the English-speaking world. Two hundred thousand men from Britain and the British Empire went over the top. Sixty thousand of them were struck down; over nineteen thousand of them were dead or missing. Casualties were especially heavy among men from Ulster and Newfoundland. In both those places, this day has a special bitterness.

By nightfall on July 1, it was becoming apparent to even the most diehard believers in victory that its cost might be more than modern nations could tolerate. Yet that was only the First Day. Before the battle of the Somme dragged to its ghastly conclusion, the British had lost over six hundred thousand men; Germany lost around four hundred fifty thousand. All the devil's tools which the Industrial Revolution had created - barbed wire, poison gas, machine guns, long-range artillery - contributed to the death of the belief that human progress was foreordained (at least in the western world).

One reason why this date has a fascination for me is that it provides another example of Six Degrees of Separation. An English farmer named Martin Middlebrook was so moved by a visit to the military cemeteries from World War I that he wrote a book, First Day at the Somme, which captured the stories of hundreds of men whose youth died on that battlefield. Some years later, he came to the United States to interview flyers who had participated in the massive bombings that destroyed Hamburg in July, 1943. One of the men he interviewed was my father, whose story is told in The Battle of Hamburg. To the end of his life, Dad remembered the time he spent with a foreigner who came a long way to hear his story.

I tell my students, "History isn't something far off. It's all around us." World War I was enormously consequential for the world, with its destruction of empires, its battles, revolutions, and epidemics. Because it was fought far from our shores, few of us Americans have or have ever had a living connection to July 1, 1916. The unending sequence of ironies that the flow of history drags along with it, though, spins a web of connections that, over time, will entangle even those a long way from major events. On that very same day, a young Army lieutenant named Dwight Eisenhower married Mary Geneva Doud, their happiness unclouded by the horrors of a few hours earlier. Of course, decades later, that same young lieutenant commanded millions of Americans, British, Canadians, French, and Poles in desperate battles fought not far from the Somme.

Who knows what historians will say about us a hundred years from today? Perhaps it's better that we can't know. Foreknowledge might drive us all insane.

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