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With vet's passing, WWI is another kind of history

By ALLEN G. BREED
The Associated Press
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?

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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."

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It started with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 - a tripwire for cataclysm.

By the time the Americans entered the war in April 1917, the Europeans had been hammering away at each other for three bloody years. Much of the French and Belgian countryside had been turned into a vast "no man's land" of barbed-wire entanglements, bounded on either side by serpentine networks of fortified trenches.

When ambulance driver Stull Holt arrived at Verdun in the fall of 1917, he discovered a scene of utter desolation.

"We were in historic ground and it looked it," the New York City native wrote home to family. "All the hills ... have been fought over many times and the result is that they are in waves of dirt with one shell hole overlapping the next; no grass or anything growing; no trees but where there used to be a forest you can see some black spots where the roots remain."

Man had invented an array of new tools for killing, and it seemed that all of Europe had become a proving ground.

Barely a decade after the Wright brothers skimmed over the grass at Kitty Hawk, the airplane had been perverted from a marvel of human ingenuity into an instrument of terror.

"It isn't very soothing for the nerves when you hear Fritz's engine going right overhead and hear him shut off just before dropping one of his pills," Lt. Bartlett H.S. Travis, who trained in Canada and joined the British Royal Flying Corps, wrote in an August 1918 letter home to New Jersey. "After his first pill the suspense waiting for the rest of them is awful."

Toward the war's end, the Germans used airplanes to experiment with a tactic they would later turn into an art form.

"I am sending to you a little sheet of German propaganda that has been dropped to our men on the front line by the Hun aeroplanes," Sgt. Morris Pigman wrote home from France in November 1918. "They are trying to weaken the morale of our men. What a feeble appeal for us to give ourselves up to them. Our boys only laugh at it and gather them up for souvenirs."

The machine gun had been around since the 1880s, and had seen limited action in the colonial campaigns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But the Germans brought a stereotypical efficiency to its deployment.

Setting up their water-cooled guns in nests strategically located along the front, the Germans could lay down a withering crossfire that easily broke the back of the traditional infantry or cavalry charge. In July 1916, German machine-gunners along the Somme reportedly killed 21,000 British soldiers in a single day.

"The machine gun bullets from both sides seemed to heat the air across the top of our hole," Sgt. Albert E. Robinson of the 140th Infantry wrote in a July 1918 diary entry. "The steady patter of our machine guns had a most business-like and reassuring sound."

The devastating effect of the machine gun led to the development of other weapons designed to break the stalemate. Flame-throwers were ideal at flushing out an entrenched enemy, and primitive tanks lumbered across battlefields, rolling over the quick and dead alike.

In the verses of British warrior/poet Siegfried Sassoon, man becomes subordinate to his creations, like so much raw meat to be ground up in the gears of a remorseless war machine.

"Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst

"Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell,

"While posturing giants dissolved in drifts of smoke.

"He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear,

"Sick for escape, loathing the strangled horror

"And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead."

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As a nurse's aide in a British volunteer aid detachment, future author and journalist Vera Brittain wondered in a letter to her mother whether people would be so hawkish if they could see what she saw daily on the wards.

"I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case - to say nothing of 10 cases of mustard gas in its early stages - could see the poor things all burnt and blistered all over with great suppurating blisters, with blind eyes - sometimes temporally, some times permanently - all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, their voices a mere whisper, saying their throats are closing and they know that they will choke."

After four years of war, the Allies had ceased to see their enemy - particularly the Germans - as human. To the French, he was the Boche; to the Americans, the faceless Hun.

Pvt. Marion E. Simmons of the 115th Engineers gleefully passed on to his family an anecdote he'd heard from another American.

"He was telling me about going through the German trenches right after the raid and stopped before the entrance to a dugout and shouted `how many of you are down there?'" Simmons wrote. "Someone said `12.' The doughboy said `well, just divide this up among you' and dropped a bomb down the hole."

Pfc. John Lewis Barkley won the Medal of Honor for his deeds in France. But he could not share the stories with his brother because he had done things "too bad to tell a civilized man."

"How would you like to have saw 5,000 dead men to every thousand yards," he wrote. "Just think of looking from our house to our west line and then place this many men in the space. Across on the German side they was twice as bad."

After such a war, Barkley wondered "what America is going to do with so many Americans that for two years they have been studying how to kill human beings."

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By the time the Germans agreed to an unconditional surrender in a railway carriage at Compiegne on Nov. 11, 1918, the carnage was almost beyond comprehension:

Nearly 20 million civilian and military casualties. More than 116,000 American dead, including more than 53,000 killed in combat.

It was a toll so horrifying that the world would spend the next decade devising a treaty to forever "condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another." Many, including a young Frank Buckles, hoped and even dared believe that H.G. Wells was right - that this would be the war to end all wars.

But the seeds of something worse had been sowed.

On Nov. 10, 1918, an aged pastor visited a hospital far removed from the front to bring word of the next day's cease-fire.

Among the patients was the young soldier who had been blinded by the gas attack near Ypres a month earlier. The courier was slowly regaining his sight and would recall that he could now make out "the general outlines of my immediate surroundings."

When he heard the clergyman's words, he broke down and wept like a child. But they were not tears of joy.

"Darkness surrounded me as I staggered and stumbled back to my ward and buried my aching head between the blankets and pillow," the young Austrian would write years later. "During the following days, my own fate became clear to me."

That soldier's name was Adolf Hitler.

© 2011 The Associated Press