Chester Martin Remembers World War I

Saturday, August 27, 2016

One hundred years ago as I write this, the U.S. was involved in the worst of all world wars to date. During the next big war, (World War 2), people desperate to know where that second war was leading, sat around on Sunday afternoon and discussed the FIRST war! At least that is how it worked in my family. I heard many stories about "The Kaiser" and the many grisly battles remembered even today, such as the Marne, the Somme, Gallipoli, Verdun, and others.

NINE MILLION people are said to have died in that horrible conflict, world-wide, and people simply called it the "Great War". Towards, or after, its end, it was sometimes called, "the war to end all war!"

It obviously did not end very much except the shooting, for many of the problems created in that war's aftermath still linger with us today. Everybody today agrees that Germany, seen as the main aggressor, got a raw deal which led to World War 2. One of the more imminent problems created was that the young people who would be needed to "start over" among all the rubble - were dead! The flower of all Europe's youth was gone.

My parents and family all wondered their entire lives how such a weak and insignificant individual as Gavrilo Prinzip could so carefully prepare for the shooting of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, and spark such a horrific conflagration, but he was a firebrand with a “cause”. (The actual assassination was very much like a “Keystone Kops” slapstick comedy!) But there have been many like Prinzip in world history. Recent historians of merit have plainly stated that a war was totally unnecessary and could have been easily avoided. But that is the hindsight of modern Academics who sit in ivory towers.

With that war still looming in the background of our national consciousness 100 years later, I recently decided to look at some pictures of the many people and events of that time. I found it more deplorable than I had earlier remembered. World War 1 has always been known for its "trench" warfare, and the pictures I looked at showed how unmercifully bad those trenches were: simply open-air rat-holes or  rabbit warrens exposed to all the atmospheric elements which filled them with water whenever it rained - or with snow in winter. It was too cold in winter for the doughboys to take off their boots which soon led to the horrible condition called trench foot.

But why “trench warfare”? The easy answer to that question is that there was no other way. The Allied Forces simply landed on the flat terrain of Northern Europe, meeting the opposing Axis armies on the same flat terrain. There was nothing to hide behind, so both factions were forced to dig trenches down into the earth, from which locations they could hurl their armaments. Look at the old pictures and you will see a flat landscape, very unlike the mountainous Afghanistan of recent times, and you will also see a desolate, pitted landscape stripped of trees and other vegetation by cannon fire.

My good uncle, Forrest Martin - the one who owned a clothing store on Main Street, near Market, (and who personally knew Abe Zarzour, Ira Trivers, and a host of other colorful characters in that locale), got drafted into the army, much to all the family's concern. He was as yet un-married, however, and therefore an easy target for the draft. He was directed to report to Fort Oglethorpe for his induction, and this he did – willingly enough - as he was of very optimistic and cheerful mien. He was duly fitted for a uniform, and was assigned to a unit, receiving all his gear and paraphernalia - ready to ship out on the next troop train. Then suddenly and unexpectedly the Armistice was signed, and he was free to go home! Whimsically, Uncle Forrest later named his beloved German Police dog, “Kaiser”!

World War 1’s great American leader was four-star “General of the Army” John J. Pershing, who was a West Point graduate and had acquired battlefield experience in Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa. He was a “natural” for the role he assumed in the Great War, and his memory is commemorated today by the name of a weapon we call the “Pershing Missile”.

The first World War probably did more to bring the U.S. – and the entire world – into the modern age than any other single force to date. Thousands of farm-boys were suddenly sent overseas where they glimpsed other cultures for the first time, a phenomenon witnessed in songs like, “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree”? Innovations and inventions were made specifically for the war effort which were then later adapted to civilian use. This was much like the more recent “space-age” product, styrofoam, which was developed first as a heat shield in the NASA space program, and later used in the manufacture of every ice-chest you have ever bought in the last 50 years!

Everything that could be thought of was used in that war. You cannot imagine the types of animals which were pressed into service: horses, dogs, CAMELS (used for transportation by certain foreign troops), canaries, carrier pigeons, falcons – even SLUGS were put to some kind of use! Poisonous gas was also developed for battlefield use, and, thankfully an international agreement was arranged to ban such chemical weapons from use in future warfare.

The German Kaiser was not highly regarded even by his own people, being seen as overly pompous and arrogant. He was the owner of two Crowns, being simultaneously the Emperor of Germany and the King of Prussia. When it became obvious his cause was lost, he simply abdicated both crowns, went into exile to live in the Netherlands, which had remained neutral during the war. Dutch Queen Wilhelmina was very sympathetic to him. All attempts to extradite him back to Germany failed, and he lived the life of a country gentleman there until age 82. King George V of England was the Kaiser’s cousin, and was so ashamed to share his family name with the Kaiser that he changed it from the German ‘Saxe-Coburg’, to Windsor. (And remember that the Kaiser was the first grandson of Queen Victoria of England– and a favorite of hers while he was young!)

My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Izar W. Bales (at Anna B. Lacey Grammar School) liked to repeat for us some of her husbands World War 1 stories, as he had been held as a Prisoner of War for some time. These prisoners would be marched to their showers every morning and ordered to “scrub front” and when that was done, to “scrub back” – supposedly while standing at attention in the old German military manner! And it was Mrs. Bales who taught us a lot of the old songs of that war – so many of them written by the Irish-American entertainer/Composer, George M. Cohan.

It was still perplexing to my family when they talked about that war how the German Kaiser got off so easy! He had taken up residence in a Dutch palace, ordering all his belongings to be shipped to him from his former residence in Potsdam, near Berlin, and this required two separate trains of about 32 cars each: one for “packages” and one for “belongings”. These belongings included a car and a boat! The fledgling Third Reich even sent him an honor guard to guarantee his safety in exile! He wrote books exonerating himself and became an amateur archeologist.

If you want some homework, boys and girls, go look at battlefield pictures from WWI, and read the Readers Digest (condensed) version of the actual assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand. Then, if you want some comic relief, go read, “Pershing at the Front”, the war poem.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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