How murders in Sarajevo caused
my grandfather to sail for France
WWI, Sand Creek Massacre & the messiness of history
by Allen Best
World War I has always confused me. Assassination of the Archduke of Austria and his wife in Sarajevo triggered it, but the principles and interests at stake mystify me. Adding to the perplexity are stories about conviviality among the front-line soldiers. The men in the mud and trenches traded jokes and insults, customarily halting the shooting for breakfast. Warring soldiers in 1914 even celebrated Christmas together in scattered but widespread ceasefires along the Western front, emerging from their earthen slits to exchange gifts.
Yet, the war was altogether ghastly, elevating death to a new art form. The machine gun was first used broadly as a tool for mass murder. Mustard gas was deployed often. In his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” infantryman Wilfred Owen told about the consequences:
“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;”
Owen chose the title ironically. A Latin phrase, it was used often at the start of the war and interpreted to mean: “It is sweet and right,” or that the war was honorable. Owen himself, after returning to England to be treated for shell shock, chose to return to the war. A week before the Armistice he was cut down by machine gun fire.
CENTRAL TO MY puzzlement has been the part of my own grandfather, from whose hard work during his lifetime I still benefit and who set a standard for discipline and moral rectitude from which I have fallen far short.
My grandfather’s ancestors had fled Europe to avoid being drafted to fight on behalf of Prussia in the War of 1848. Born in a sod house on the Colorado prairie in 1890, he was ready to take up arms against the country of his forbearers. It was all about religion.
“It seemed to me that if Christianity was to survive, the German military had to be stopped,” he explained in his memoirs. With a Godless Germany and a Godless Russia, Christianity would have a set back maybe for centuries.”
And so, newly married to a woman, my grandmother, whose parents spoke only German, he left the farmlands of the South Platte River Valley of Colorado in 1918 for the killing fields of France, to do his part.
He was 28 then, and maybe it wasn’t all God and nation. Perhaps, he just itched to see some of the world. He had demonstrated a sense of adventure four years before, driving a motorcycle across roads as much rumor as reality to the World’s Fair in San Francisco. A half-century after WWI, he may have sanitized his motives. Maybe he didn’t fully understand them.
The New York Times, in a piece entitled “On the Brink,” published on May 12, 2013, reviewed two books. Those books, “The Sleepwalkers” and “July 1914,” reveal many motives and causes, none of them particularly noble. Or, as Harold Evans, the reviewer (a former Brit and partner of notable magazine editor Tina Brown) writes: “Not having a villain to boo is emotionally less satisfying, but Clark (one of the book authors) makes a cogent case for the war as a tragedy, not a crime: in his telling, there is a smoking pistol in the hands of every major character.”
That author, Clark, also offers what Evans describes as a “fascinating” new point: “Not simply were all the political players in the drama male, but they were men caught in a ‘crisis of masculinity.'”
I particularly like the way that Evans ends his review: “The participants were conditioned to keep walking along a precipitous escarpment, sure of their own moral compass, but unknowingly impelled by a complex interaction of deep-rooted cultures, patriotism and paranoia, sediments of history and folk memory, ambition and intrigue.”
I can’t help but wonder about how the oars of “patriotism and paranoia” have steered my own choices and attitude in life, and the “sediments of history and folk memory” that even now may anchor my thinking without my awareness.
A FEW WEEKS AGO, Patty Limerick’s Center of the American West gave the Wallace Stegner Award to Elliott West, a historian of the Great Plains. West, in his many books, has returned frequently to the contradictions of our frontier forbearers.
Speaking in Boulder, West pointed to the quintessential example of E.B. Sopris. A member of the Colorado militia, Sopris had participated in the massacre of Cheyenne and Arapahoe people at Sand Creek in 1864. In an interview some 61 years later, Sopris profanely bragged about killing Jack Smith, a half-breed. But in the same interview, Sopris proudly acknowledged his wife – a half-breed, whose parentages connected her to both Red Cloud, the Sioux chief, and the fur-trading St. Vrain fur-trading family. And in marrying her, he adopted her son, sending him to the University of Denver and then Columbia Law School.
“Life is messy,” said West.
Motives and actions in World War I were messy, too, and are hard to untangle even at the distance of a century. The only clear lesson I draw is that battle cries in the name of nation and God come easy, but the work of peace is difficult indeed.
For a fuller description of the Sopris episode, see Elliott West’s “The Way West: Essays on the Central Plains.”