Scaling Back History

If you’re a long time, or even somewhat recent reader, you know that I am adapting my grandfather’s World War I diary for the stage.

I’ve made considerable progress and hope to have a first draft completed soon.

His diary begins with his arrival at Camp Lee, now Fort Lee, in September of 1917 and goes through October of the next year when he was hit with mustard gas, barely a month before Armistice Day. He spent the end of the war a hospital in France.

He was never the same after the war. I believe that he wouldn’t have been even without being subjected to the gas.

In my research to supplement his writings, I’ve found this quote by Erich Maria Remarque, the German who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front.

“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”

The diary and the family history tells me that was my grandfather’s experience as well.

In my research, and thanks to the husband of a cast mate in my wife’s current show [Love, Loss, and What I Wore and Huguenot Community Players] I have discovered the work of Dan Carlin who offers podcasts in a series called Hardcore History. I have been fascinated by the first four of the podcasts called Blueprint for Armageddon.

In a purely academic sense, of course I’ve known that war was horrible. But World War I, as Carlin notes, did away with the notion of the romance of war, if it ever was really romantic.

Advances, if you can call them that, in science introduced terrible horrors and unimaginable things that men and countries were willing to do to other humans.

I will admit to having a surface knowledge of trench warfare and what life was like in the trenches. But what I know is from sanitized versions like the movie Silent Night or Downton Abbey. These were tame in comparison to the reality.

Without being too graphic, the trenches were places where soldiers lived and fought in mud and muck. That much we knew. But beyond that they had no places to bury their dead or dispose of human waste.

I won’t go into more of that here.

But I did most of my listening on my trip to and from Atlanta over the weekend (mentioned yesterday if you’re paying attention).

What registered with me is the realization that my grandfather lived through that horror and spoke of it only in the vaguest of terms in his diary.

I began to have a better understanding of why, indeed, it stayed with him for the rest of his life.

I have not yet reached the point in Carlin’s telling of the war when the United States entered the fray. By the time we actually got there the war, which many thought would be over in a matter of weeks, had been raging for three years.

We were reluctant to enter the war. In fact Woodrow Wilson had been reelected in part because of his campaign slogan “he kept us out of war.” But by his second term, American intervention was inevitable.

In 1917 there was no instant communication or 24-hour news cycle like we have today. Still, the Americans had to have been aware of the absolute horrors of what was happening in Europe, and in fact around the world. By this point, hundreds of thousands had already died.

What I’m wondering, because my grandfather really didn’t talk about it, was how the average American soldier felt going off to fight at the end of this war.

Was it patriotism and duty to keep the world free? Was there a resignation of having to do something regardless of the futility?

I’m sure there was some of both.

I can’t tell the whole story. But I hope to tell his story.

Working to know the how and why part of America’s involvement is crucial to telling the story correctly.

It’s a work in progress.

If only I could be writing the story of creating art and music and not war.

German-English organist and composer George Frideric Handel was born on this day in 1685 (died 1758).


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