Origins of the Great War of the Worlds: Part 1
Little Ricky Meets a Nice British Man
Let's talk about why I'm writing a book named The Great War of the Worlds.
When I was very young, my mom worked and my Nana took care of me.
My memories from then are dim, muffled by and intertwined with a swirl of newer memories of "Nana's house." That little home, a quick bike ride from the house I grew up in, was a calm oasis from birth all the way through my visits home from the Army.
But I remember one day very well. It was the first time I got a glimpse into my grandfather's past.
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Nana's house truly was a quiet refuge. I don't remember their sole television ever being turned on. My grandparents did giant puzzles on a table that sat on their sun porch and always had a collection of Reader's Digests and National Geographics. When they babysat me I had my Matchbox car collection, G.I. Joe, or Outer Space Men toys.
This day was special though, because we had a visitor. He was an amiable man, but "talked funny," because he was from Great Britain. I guess this was the first time I heard an English accent? I'm not sure why, because The Wonderful World of Disney must have had some English people on it. Mister Rogers probably did, too. Either way, I remember asking him why he talked funny and drank tea like my mother instead of coffee, like my Dad.
The very nice British man was Martin Middlebrook, and he was there to interview my grandfather for his first book, The First Day on the Somme.
Like every German man (arguably boy) of his generation, the Kaiser drafted my grandfather into World War I. While much of the country was still bathed in the echoes of Augusterlebnis, my grandfather wasn’t thrilled. He was a farmer's son and didn't volunteer, so he was destined for a reserve regiment that would go to the trenches.
Sure enough, by June 2016 he was in a trench near Mametz Wood, in the Somme valley.
The British and French attacked on we call the first day on the Somme; July 1, 1916. They'd spent ten days bombarding the Germans before their offensive and, as the liner notes in Middlebrook's book puts it, went "into action confident of a decisive victory."
But the bombardment was largely a waste of time. Avid Downton Abbey fans may remember the show portraying the bombardment in the show's second season. The shelling was so heavy, people heard it across the channel in England.
The British suffered nearly 60,000 casualties that day. Roughly 20,000 were killed. To put that number in perspective, the U.S. Military lost less than 34,000 men during the entire Korean War.
Estimates for German casualties are 6000 - 12,000. I'm not sure why it's such a wide range, but I got an idea of why the numbers were so lopsided from my grandfather.
"We were shooting at British. They were shooting at rocks," my grandfather said with a thick voice as tears formed in his eyes.
Nana quickly ushered me out of the kitchen.
My grandfather didn't like to talk about the war. Years later, while drinking with some older men in my grandfather's hometown in Germany, I learned how he had saved most of his platoon that day by leading them out of the trenches when the British broke through the lines. They also talked about what happened after the war, but that’s another story or three.
I said earlier that the British bombardment was largely a waste of time. It wasn't a complete failure. It disabled artillery that made the Capture of Montauban possible on the first day. Mametz Wood stood between the British and Montauban.
Thirty-one prisoners were taken and a large number of troops from Infantry Regiment 109 retreated through the artillery lines in Caterpillar valley.
At least some of those troops were following my grandfather.
A few years later, I asked my father about the story while home for my grandfather's funeral. He told me that the only thing my grandfather would say was that he knew which way to run, because he had laid the cable for the lights in the trenches.
The 109th Reserve Regiment suffered 2,147 casualties that day.
Middebrook's book was released in the United Kingdom in 1971, and made it to the U.S. a year later. He quotes my grandfather once. I'm guessing he spoke to him in 1970 as part of the final preparations for the book, only because I'm not sure how I could remember the day at all if it had been any earlier.
World War II got most of the attention when I was a kid. Sgt. Rock, Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos, The Haunted Tank, The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, Kelly's Heroes. I could fill pages with WWII media from the 60s and 70s. Meanwhile, WWI was all but invisible in the comics, and the only movies I can name are oldies I discovered in my 20s: the superlative Paths of Glory and the equally impressive 1930s version of All Quiet on the Western Front. It’s only recently that the Great War has received much attention.
But I grew up interested in World War I, for obvious reasons.
So, how did I get from this to my book? I'm already 1000 words in, so I'll pick this thread up next week.
It is truly insane how young so many of those boys were when they were thrown into those wars.