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Across the Fence: Armistice Day 11-11-11
November 10, 2011 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting
Ninety-three years ago, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month the ‘War To End All Wars’ came to a close. November 11, 1918 marked that ending and was known as Armistice Day, for many years, until it became Veterans Day. Had it been a true and lasting worldwide armistice it would likely still be called Armistice Day. But sadly, it seems that it actually spawned a proliferation of world conflicts and so to honor those who have served in subsequent wars as well, it has been renamed Veterans Day.

From June of 1914 until November of 1918, over 9 million soldiers were killed in action, more than 21 million soldiers wounded in battle and an estimated 5 million civilians lost their lives due to starvation, disease and exposure. That’s over 9,000 deaths a day, every day for four and a half years, and WWII was four times that number.

This year, the 93rd anniversary year of that historic armistice, the last WWI veteran from the United Sates, Frank Buckles, died on February 27th. Two months later, the last known WWI combatant, British born, Claude Choules died in Australia, at the age of 110 years, on May 5th.

Perhaps less well known is that this date also marks another tribute to those who have sacrificed their lives on the battlefields of the world. Three years after Germany signed the armistice agreement that ended WWI, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated in a funeral service for an unknown American soldier who had been buried on a French battlefield. His remains had been returned to the U.S. just two days prior to the three-year anniversary of the armistice on 11/11/1921. He was interred with a 2-inch layer of French soil beneath him as a reminder of the battlefield on which he fought and died.

This Armistice Day, I will remember three brothers who fought side by side in the muddy and bloody trenches of World War I. These brothers were my maternal grandmother’s brothers, Lee, Earl and Allie Stephan. All three were survivors of that terrible war, but being a survivor did not mean they were not casualties.

Lee was the youngest and least impacted of the three. His scars were not readily visible but he carried the wounds of remembering and the horrible images of war were deeply etched on his memory. His brothers, Earl and Allie were less fortunate.

Uncle Allie was bedridden for as long as I remember. His appearance was ghostly white, his flesh virtually colorless except for burn scars on his face and neck. His blue eyes were skimmed over with a creamy film that rendered him nearly blind. His speech came in breathless, guttural sounds that I barely understood. My mother’s explanation for his condition was, “He was gassed.”

Uncle Earl had some difficulty in breathing and was often ‘not well’ with headaches and other illnesses not discussed. Today we call it Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Back then they called it ‘shell shock.’

This is their story as I remember it told to me.

That day in the trenches probably began just like every other day. The rising sun cast its warming rays on a landscape that looked more like how the desolate surface of the moon must look. Winding trenches stretched from horizon to horizon. Gouged-out craters filled with putrid water where human corpses floated face down while fearless rats scurried between, hastily dug, shallow graves.

The trenches were crowded, filthy and muddy. There were no sanitary facilities. Disease and infection were widespread among the sick and wounded and before the day was over there would be more sick, more wounded, more graves.

As the bombardments began, the commanding officer brought the troops to their feet and lined them up along a stretch of trench more than 100 yards in length. Soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder, rifles at the ready, bayonets fixed. The commanding officer peered over the edge of the trench, across the battlefield littered with the carnage of the last unsuccessful charge, shouted a half-hearted battle cry and ordered his men up and over the trenches edge and onward across the battlefield.

Earl and Allie were side by side when the charge began. Dodging enemy rifle fire and exploding shells, they crouched as low as possible as they dashed from crater to crater. Suddenly, Earl was alone. Looking back, Earl saw Allie lying sprawled upon the ground, the yellow fumes of mustard gas curled over his body and around his face. Allie gasped for air, drawing the deadly gas deeper into his lungs. Without hesitation, Uncle Earl threw down his rifle, ran back to his wounded brother, pulled him from the ground and carried him back to the relative safety of the trench they had recently left.

Uncle Allie never recovered from the effects of the mustard gas. The commanding officer saw Uncle Earl throw down his weapon and run in the opposite direction of the charge. Uncle Earl was court martialed for cowardice in the face of the enemy. His defense was not accepted.
What price mankind must pay to be called civilized.

Tim Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist, freelance writer, cowboy poet and entertainer. To contact Tim e-mail; mtimn@aol.com
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