Saturday, July 12, 2014

THE SOMMES WW I, 1916, 1.2 million died in 5 month battle

A language limitation joke resulted from my hashed French conversation with our last host Regis. I was asking him about Agincourt (the French name is Azincourt, hence his confusion about what I was talking about), and I tried to clarify by saying it was a battle site. He laughed and said I would have to be far more specific than that since almost everywhere in France throughout the centuries has been the site of battles.

But the same could be said about most places on the planet. Wars and rumors of wars: it is the history of the world. Greed and ambition of the powerful few results in another generation sacrificing its 19-20 year olds in the field of battle. So it has been and persists in being in a badly broken world regardless of the creative and sophisticated ways we try to tell ourselves to just be nice to one another. 

I'm reflecting on this here in the somber valley of the Sommes in northern France where 100 years ago the "War to end all wars" was waged. It was a Great War, if greatness can be measured by body count and futility: opening day of the battle resulted in a horrific 60,000 casualties, average daily body count for the next five months, 5,600 souls. A Great War, the grand achievement of irreligious modernism, but a war that did not remotely end all wars. 

The scope of destruction and devastation is hard to fathom. Today we explored the twelve mile limestone network of tunnels at Wellington Quarry, dug by New Zeeland troops. 24,000 men were hidden in these tunnels, who then broke out on July 1, 1916, to the astonishment of unsuspecting German troops a few yards from the break out point. Initial victory was followed by a well-supplied reinforced German army; eventually only 800 of the original 24,000 men survived the conflict.

We paused at the St Vaast war cemetery where 44,800 Germans are buried. Then we stopped and gazed at the sea of stone markers at the Cabernet Rouge cemetery where nearly 8,000 allied soldiers are buried, more than half, "Known only to God." That is one of the unique and deeply troubling dimensions of this war, so many men were just obliterated, either their bodies never found in the mud and rubble and chaos of battle or there was no possible way of identifying the mangled human remains. 

After exploring the trenches and more underground passages at Vimy Ridge where Canadian troops took heavy losses valiantly driving back the Hun, we rounded out the day by gazing on 42,000 crosses marking the final earthly resting place of fallen French soldiers at Notre Dame de Lorette, national necropolis of France.

I feel numb. The scale of devistation is too much to take fully in. All this in a war that snuffed out the life of 10 million average age 20 year old young men. When I attempt to envision how many crosses or gravestones that would be my imagination is exhausted. I simply cannot or don't want to get an acurate picture of the loss in my mind. 

Then I am struck by the viralence of the irony. We war and hate, kill and destroy, why? Because we are intractable rebels against the God of love, life, and justice who created us. We think we're far better off on our own and resent his will and way. We think we can handle things better on our own. And then when we are forced to stare at the resulting destruction our devotion to secularism has caused, we cast about for someone else to blame; and so we turn around and point the finger at God and religion. We're certain that if people would just stop being so certain about their beliefs there'd be no more wars like this one--truly we're absolutely certain, beyond a doubt, about it all being God's fault and Those who believe in him. 

Such absolutist conclusions are ironic on many levels, not the least of which is that it was our devout devotion to Modernism that set the stage for this war to end all wars. Modernism said that we human beings could solve our problem by our economic strength, by our technology and scientific knowledge, by education, and by our military might. 

Modernism was a ticking time bomb that exploded in our face 100 years ago, 1914. And arguably nobody paid for the enormous miscalculation more than France. Following our will and way produces a wasteland. The way of the gospel of Jesus Christ alone restores all things to love, beauty, and peace. Come Lord Jesus, Prince of Peace!

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