HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN YET?
My father called them nighthorses, ghastly dreams that plagued him
until the day he died. The cries of a puling, terrified animal form my first memory of him.
Well old enough to have been my grandparent, my father was one of the first Americans to enter the First World War. Part of the American Expeditionary Force, led by General Blackjack Pershing, he arrived in France in the early fall of 1917. He was already a veteran, his career in the military having taken him, in 1916, to the border wars between Mexico and the United States, where he fought the last hostile outburst of Poncho Villa. When he landed in France with his best friend from home, he was seventeen years old.
The war had been raging since August 1914, but it was not until late spring of 1918 that U.S. troops became actively engaged. They helped turn back the German advance on Paris at Chateau-Thierry, then at Soissons, St. Mihiel, and finally in late September, the Meuse-Argonne. Armistice soon followed. However, it would be a mistake to assume, as many do, that the U.S. presence won this war, though clearly their arrival—fresh, eager, and some would say wholly unprepared—tipped the balance.
By all reasoned accounts “The World War,” as one of my father’s medals
was inscribed, was a suicide of nations, an unfathomable conflagration between dynasties braided by bloodline and opportunism. Kaiser Wilhelm’s grandmother was England’s Queen Victoria. England’s King George, also her grandson, was the Kaiser’s cousin, as was Tsar Nicholas of Russia. Ena, still another grandchild of Victoria, was Queen of Spain. The Empress of Russia and the Kings of Greece and Norway were among Victoria’s Danish daughter-in-law’s family. And so it went. When Kaiser Wilhelm was deported it is said he asked only for a proper cup of English tea.
As the ultimate pastoral irony, the “war to end all wars” brought into higher relief the absurdity of armed conflict, and at the same time created a grotesque paradigm marked by a level of violence and cynicism from which we have yet to recover. In an attempt to save national pride, a generation of young men was sacrificed. When there were no more young men, old men and youths were dragged into the slaughter. As one veteran put it, in the end they were shooting moon-faced boys.
Sigfreid Sassoon, one of the gifted poets of the Great War generation, asked Have you forgotten yet? We might answer yes and no. Those who survived the conflict were not encouraged to offer witness. Men returned to their former lives with no way to express their experience, except reliving them in night terrors. But while the truths of the war for many remain blurred by time, we have other ways to remember—left as we are with a genetic memory passed down through generations. I wish to address this consequence of the Great War, and, I hope, in the process, all war.
—Pam Bernard, 2010