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Armistice Day

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th November 2012


“Mahnmal,” (lit. “Warning monument,” usu. “Grieving Parents”) Kathe Kollwitz, 1932.
Photo by Tony Novosel

Today is Armistice Day, marking the end of combat in World War I. I’m seeing other remembrances of it on the Internet, and thought I’d add this one. It’s titled “Grieving Parents” or “Mourning Parents” in English, but the true name, in German, is simply “Mahnmal” –  “Warning Monument.”

Kathe Kollwitz’s younger son Peter volunteered for the German army when World War I began, and died in Belgium in 1914. Kollwitz — a socialist and eventual communist, as it happened — began work on this the next year; it was placed in the Roggevelde-Eesen German military cemetery in 1932.*

To me, this is one of greatest sculptures of all time, a Pieta of this world, not the next: the mother collapsing as if shot, the father grimly holding on to himself to keep from doing the same; eternal, unassuageable grief set in stone. Multiply this nine millionfold: World War I. Multiply it millions upon millionsfold again: the wars still fought after the war to supposedly end them all.

Each wartime grief has a particular story.  In this one, Kathe Kollwitz’s younger son Peter volunteered for the German army when World War I began.  Her diaries record the sequence of events:
Read the rest of this entry »

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Armistice Day

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th November 2005


Käthe Kollwitz: Grieving Parents
(near her son’s war grave)

From John Keegan’s description of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916), in The Face of Battle: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme:

In some battalions, the men were able to walk upright, with arms sloped or ported, as they had been expecting. In others they were soon bent forward, like men walking into a strong wind and rain, their bayonets fixed and their rifles horizontal. ‘Troops always, in my experience’, wrote Lord Chandos, whose observation this is, ‘unconsciously assume this crouching position when advancing against heavy fire.’ [...]

[T]he last brigade [had] a mile of open ground to cover before it reached its own front line, a safe enough passage if the enemy’s machine-guns had been extinguished, otherwise a funeral march. A sergeant of the 3rd Tyneside Irish (26th Northumberland Fusiliers), describes how it was: ‘I could see, away to my left and right, long lines of men. Then I heard the “patter, patter” of machine-guns in the distance. By the time I’d gone another ten yards there seemed to be only a few men left around me; by the time I had gone twenty yards, I seemed to be on my own. Then I was hit myself.’

The photograph is by Tony Novosel, via a post you should visit, Ghosts of the Great War, 2005, by Teresa Nielsen Hayden at “Making Light.”

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90 years ago today: the guns of August

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd August 2004

The 90th anniversary of some of the most fateful days in human history is passing almost unnoticed and unremarked:

FIRST WORLD WAR ERUPTS:
August 1, 1914

Four days after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Germany and Russia declare war against each other, France orders a general mobilization, and the first German army units cross into Luxembourg in preparation for the German invasion of France. During the next three days, Russia, France, Belgium, and Great Britain all lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany, and the German army invaded Belgium. The ‘Great War’ that ensued was one of unprecedented destruction and loss of life, resulting in the deaths of some 20 million soldiers and civilians.

(via The History Channel’s This Day in History“)

And millions more in Russia via the Russian Revolution, millions more again in the Second World War, finishing what the First did not, and doubtless millions in named and unnamed consequences of both. The conflagration began burning 90 years ago.

There are doubtless many superb literary evocations of World War I; one I know and can recommend is Pat Barker’s trilogy: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road. The first book that brought home World War I to me is the classic work by John Keegan, The Face of Battle: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme — as beautifully written, eye-opening, and richly researched a work of history as I’ve ever come across. From Keegan’s description of the Somme, (July 1, 1916):

In some battalions, the men were able to walk upright, with arms sloped or ported, as they had been expecting. In others they were soon bent forward, like men walking into a strong wind and rain, their bayonets fixed and their rifles horizontal. ‘Troops always, in my experience’, wrote Lord Chandos, whose observation this is, ‘unconsciously assume this crouching position when advancing against heavy fire.’ [...]

[T]he last brigade [had] a mile of open ground to cover before it reached its own front line, a safe enough passage if the enemy’s machine-guns had been extinguished, otherwise a funeral march. A sergeant of the 3rd Tyneside Irish (26th Northumberland Fusiliers), describes how it was: ‘I could see, away to my left and right, long lines of men. Then I heard the “patter, patter” of machine-guns in the distance. By the time I’d gone another ten yards there seemed to be only a few men left around me; by the time I had gone twenty yards, I seemed to be on my own. Then I was hit myself.’
(pp. 244-245 of my paperback copy)

If you’re interested, other books you might consider are The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman, John Mosier’s The Myth of the Great War, and Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. Like Trotsky once said: “You may not be interested in war. But war is interested in you.”

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