Today marks the ninety-ninth anniversary of the Armistice, the end of fighting on the Western Front during World War I. [The formal end to the war did not occur until the Treaty of Versailles, signed June 28, 1919—or five years to the day when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. The U.S. never ratified the Treaty, and did not acknowledge a formal end to hostilities until July 2, 1919.]
“I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.”
Those words were written by American Alan Seeger. Born in 1888, Seeger studied at Harvard, where he was influenced by the Romantic poets. Graduating in 1910, he lived for a time in Greenwich Village, before moving to the Latin Quarter in Paris. He was living there when the war broke out, and almost immediately joined the French Foreign Legion. The uncle of one of my favorite folk singers, Pete Seeger (1919—2014), Alan Seeger has sometimes been called “the American Rupert Brooke.”
“It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.”
Seeger soon had his rendezvous with death—killed on July 4, 1916 in Belloy-en-Santerre, France, while taking part in the Battle of the Somme [over 600,000 Allied casualties; the front moved six miles]. Before the war was over, more than 18 million fellow soldiers and civilians each had their rendezvous with death as well. Recently I finished reading Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings, one of my favorite authors. Hastings is particularly scathing about the needlessness of the war: Austria-Hungary’s desire to teach Serbia a lesson (with no tears shed over Franz Ferdinand’s death); Germany’s “blank check” given to Austria-Hungary, knowing that Russia would defend Serbia, etc. This stupidity was rivaled only by the ineptitude of almost all the generals, fighting with 19th Century tactics against 20th Century weaponry and technology.
What this book also underscores is how much the world has changed since “The Great War.” Within the span measured by Pete Seeger’s life, some behaviors now seem so quaint, so foreign as to be almost inexplicable, or slightly daft in their archaic assumptions. When Great Britain committed to the war, orders were dispatched to military establishments. In one case “The colonel of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was attending a dinner party when an orderly bearing a message [to commence mobilization] was announced. The guests were almost certain of its contents, but etiquette prevailed: the messenger was kept waiting until dinner was finished and the ladies had retired, before being permitted to deliver the regiment’s mobilisation [sic] telegram.” A captain in the Royal Marines was exasperated when the order arrived in the middle of a cricket match, where he had scored “66 not out” [whatever that means]. Soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Army, a polyglot group comprised of multiple national groups, often fired on neighboring formations, supposing them to be the enemy—since they spoke another language they could not understand. This was mirrored within the Austrian Parliament, which allowed members to speak in their native tongues, but provided no translators for the rest of the assembly to even understand what they were saying.
Hastings’s work also provides a cautionary tale. Speaking again of the Hapsburg Empire, he observes: “In the years before 1914, the Empire also grew accustomed to employing military threats as a routine extension of its diplomacy. Its generals regarded war with reckless insouciance, as a mere tool for the advancement of national interests rather than as a passport to Hades.”
November 11 is also commemorated in the U.S. as Veterans Day. As the father of two veterans, whose service I salute and honor, let us hope that our leaders, military and civilian, never, ever, regard war “with reckless insouciance.”
“God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear….
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.”