With vet's passing, WWI is another kind of history
Monday, February 28, 2011; 5:03 PM
-- What was it like?
What was it like in the trenches? What was it like in all those places whose names have faded in the dusty recesses of memory, places like Ypres and Gallipoli, Verdun and the Marne? What was it like to fight the war that was supposed to make the world safe for democracy?
There's no one left to ask.
The Great War has almost passed from living memory. The veterans have slipped away, one by one, their obituaries marking the end of the line in country after country: Harry Patch, Britain's last survivor of the trenches; Lazare Ponticelli, the last of the French "poilu"; Erich Kastner, the last of the Germans.
And now, Frank Buckles, dead at age 110, the last U.S. veteran. Missouri boy. Sixteen years old, he lied about his age to get into the Army and badgered his superiors until they sent him to the French front with an ambulance unit, one of 4.7 million Yanks who answered the call to go "Over There."
All of them gone. None of them surviving to tell us about a brutish, bloody conflict that set new standards for horror.
No one to answer the question: What was it like?
Hunkered in a network of fortifications gouged out of a low hill outside the Belgian town of Werwick, the young soldier and his comrades were shielded from shrapnel as the artillery bombardment thundered throughout the evening and into the night. But after four years of trench warfare, both sides had found ways to defeat such defenses.
As the rounds thudded into the rich soil of the famed Flanders Fields south of Ypres, the Bis(2-chloroethyl) sulfide liquid hidden in the tips vaporized into the yellowish-brown cloud that earned this new and terrible weapon its nickname - "mustard gas." Heavier than the air around it, the gas descended into the trenches and dugouts, enveloping the men in a foul-smelling mist that seeped into the gaps around their shoddily constructed masks.
By midnight, many of the entrenched soldiers were incapacitated as their lungs burned, their eyes swelled shut and deep itches beneath their moldy woolen uniforms erupted into angry red blisters. The 29-year-old courier didn't feel the effects until the following morning, but when the pain finally arrived, it was excruciating.
"It increased with every quarter of an hour, and about seven o'clock my eyes were scorching as I staggered back and delivered the last dispatch I was destined to carry in this war," the young soldier wrote of that battle in the last days of World War I. "A few hours later my eyes were like glowing coals, and all was darkness around me."