It happened today that I was driving to work and caught a glimpse of something that transported me to a hellish battlefield one hundred years ago. The thermometer hovered just north of freezing. Pellets of rain hit my windshield like shrapnel, which concerned me little because I was cozy and warm in, ironically enough, my German-engineered driving machine. The Starbucks latte was a pleasant addition to my comfortable morning.
I glanced around at the surrounding commuters, then to the traffic situation on my navigation display, and then to the roadside construction dedicated to widening the roadway from four lanes to eight. It was the landscape of this construction that instantly gripped my mind with visions of battle, my stomach with the grotesqueness of total war, and my heart with the fear that follows both.
The construction had created a massive hole in the ground, perhaps in preparation to erect an overpass pillar. Rainwater had filled it to a depth of maybe two feet and the orange-red clay had erased any transparency the water ever had. It was cloudy, filthy muck. The surface of the water ended abruptly, rippling against a 60 degree slope of slippery mud that rose five feet above. The slope plateaued at the top and descended again into another pool of orange water. It was a decidedly uninviting place to be, one that discouraged a visit by anyone save the construction crew working there.
Normally, the site would’ve passed by my vision without notice. But this day I was listening to Dan Carlin’s podcast account of World War I, specifically the trench-laden, hideous battlefields of Verdun and the Somme. And in the milliseconds that my subconscience spent studying the squalid construction site, it visually and emotionally transformed into the cratered, bloodied, contaminated World War I landscape that Dan Carlin had been describing during my peaceful car ride to work.
For those of us who have forgotten, which I had, this is what hell on earth looks like:
These are the images that came to mind when I passed by the roadside construction site. It was a shallow trench, or maybe a bomb crater filled with water. It was a World War I terrain feature, sans the drumroll of enemy artillery bombardment or the rhythmic clatter of machine gun traversing fire. It was a repulsive place to be forced to visit, much less reside. But that’s precisely what the soldiers of one hundred years ago did.
And in that moment, this 1915 filth was juxtaposed sharply with the clean comfort of my morning commute. You see, I’m an Infantryman currently serving in an office staff job. Yes, I’ve seen some hardship, but I’ve NEVER…COME…CLOSE…to experiencing the sustained hell that the soldiers of Ypres, Verdun, and the Somme had to endure. When old soldiers talk of the necessity of accepting that you’re already dead, the genesis of that philosophy are places like the trenches of World War I.
Comfort did not exist along the Western Front. Death enveloped all. Survival was granted to the rare few. Mud, body parts, bullets, shrapnel, animal carcasses, snow, nerve agents. Uncertainty, longing, anger, fear, dismay, and sadness were interrupted only briefly by displays of courage and hope. Mostly, though, for the common soldier, life was a myth.
Then, I mentally compared the Infantryman’s life today with that of our World War I brethren and almost laughed at the disparity. As Dan Carlin points out, the early 20th Century nations were caught between the Napoleonic nature of set-piece warfare and the burgeoning Industrial Revolution technology that would bring new and innovative slaughter to enemy formations employing old-world tactics. World War I was a tough time to be a soldier.
Battles today pale in comparison to that total war. Our firefights last for minutes, maybe hours. Campaigns to retake major cities last for a month or two, and soldiers still have heated tents to come back to. At Verdun and others, there was no escaping enemy fire, even to take a shit. Combat was all-consuming, engrossing. We soldiers today cannot fully grasp that environment.
As if to drive the point home, I briefly imagined stopping my car on the side of the congested road and stepping out into that muck. What would it feel like to shed my Jos. A. Bank costume for an olive drab wool uniform and assume a prone firing position?…not for an hour or a day, but for a YEAR! Or maybe more, if I live that long. The thought is unimaginable, incomprehensible.
Then after the passage of perhaps five seconds, the vision had dissipated, replaced by a sea of taillights. A visceral, emotional reaction resonated for another minute or two as I pondered my own comparative toughness, a by-product of the comforts of today, and small. Could a strategic situation ever again emerge that would result in the tactical nightmare that befell the common soldier in World War I? How long would history take to repeat itself and could I endure the experience?
These were questions best answered with a bit of alcohol and friends, neither of which I had on my way to work. So I was left with humility, and reverence, and condolence for those who did endure it. And I think that was a respectable endstate.