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Back to the Front - Stephen O'Shea
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, 
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, 
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs 
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. 
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots 
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; 
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots 
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, 
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; 
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, 
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . . 
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, 
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; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen’s Five-Nines Poem
He was killed in battle on November 4th, 1918. His parents learned of his death just as the bells announcing the Armistice rang on November 11th. He is considered Britain's greatest war poet.

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Wilfred Owen

Stephen O’Shea, a self-proclaimed accidental historian, took a job teaching English in France and while there developed an interest in the World War One trenches. Both his Irish grandfathers donned British uniforms to fight in the trenches. One volunteered and the other was part of the draft. They both survived the war, but one great-uncle of O’Shea’s on his mother’s side was killed in battle at age twenty. History becomes more personal if you can tie your blood to it, but only if you can feel the pull of your own ancestral history. 

It starts out as just a tentative trip to see the trenches. A peek really, just to see if there is anything worth seeing. This turns into a ten year full blown obsession as O’Shea starts to read everything he can get his hands on about the war, and culminates in a determination to walk all 450 miles of World War One trenches. As we follow along with O’Shea he gives us a quick rundown of what happened in each geographical section of the trenches. He gives us numbers of the dead, gruesome, atrocious, unbelievable numbers. 

Top Five Bloodiest Conflicts of WW1.
1. Hundred Days Offensive, this was a series of offensives that broke the German line and forced them to move back to the Hindenburg entrenchments in a last ditch effort to protect the homeland. This effectively ends the war and crushes the German Empire but at a cost of 1,855,369 casualties. Fall 1918.

2. Spring Offensive the German Army is in desperate straits with such a depleted manpower that they are at this point putting young boys and old men in the front lines. The Germans make a massive push in the hopes that they can overrun the Allied before those waves of American troops can arrive. Basically the Germans overrun their supply lines, running out of necessary things like bullets, and the Allies were able to dig in and hold on. After all the Americans are coming. The Americans are coming. Casualties 1,539,715. Spring 1918.

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The Battle of the Somme

3. The Battle of the Somme, an event that should never be forgotten by the British. They lost over 60,000 men in one day. Sir Douglas “The Butcher” Haig was criticized heavily for his decision to send his men into heavy machine gun fire with no objective obtained. Casualties 1,219,201. November 1916.

Before the war is over Haig will have the deaths of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers lives laid at his doorstep. There are statues of Haig at Whitehall and Edinburgh Castle, so there doesn’t seem to have been any hard feelings. As it turns out it wasn’t Haig’s fault. No indeed. It was the fault of the British Worker. 

”A scapegoat was needed for the reversal of fortune. Since the generals John French and Douglas Haig, could not very well blame themselves and didn’t dare blame the thousands they had just sent to their deaths, it was thought best to lay the whole thing at the doorstep of the British worker. There had not been enough artillery shells, army spokesmen declared, because the British worker was a shirker who spent all his time getting drunk.”

4. The Battle of Verdun was to symbolize for the French what the Somme symbolized for the British...the horrors of war. The Germans attacked with the sole objective of killing as many French as possible with the hopes that it would break their morale and shorten the war. The French dug in and the famous battle cry They Shall Not Pass was born in the blood and misery of this conflict. Casualties 976,000. February-December 1916. 

5. Battle of Passchendaele. It rained and rained creating a bog of mud that buried tanks and drowned men. David Lloyd George publicly condemned the waste of this battle and the poor leadership. After months of slender movements back and forth finally the Canadian Corp broke through and took the town of Passchendaele ending the conflict. Casualties 848,614. July to November 1917. 

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The Battle in the mud at Passchendaele.

Farmers when they returned to try to reclaim the land after the war kept churning up bodies from their shallow graves with every turn of the plow. Still, today, they have what they call their Iron Harvest every time they till a field. Unexploded bombs and unidentifiable pieces of steel rest against fence posts at the edges of the fields. There are areas like Zona Rouge that are unclaimable. The terrain is still a nightmare.

”The physical destruction of the guerre de quatorze in France was appalling: 319,269 houses obliterated; 313,675 houses seriously damaged; 1,699 villages annihilated; 707 villages three-quarters destroyed; 1,656 villages half-destroyed; 20,603 factories leveled; 31,650 miles of road wrecked; 4,875 bridges blown; 4,297,800 acres of farmland and 2,060,000 acres of uncultivated land poisoned, dug up, shelled, mined, befouled, littered, and stained with a toxic, soupy mix of decaying corpses and rotting horse flesh.”

Break of Day in the Trenches
The darkness crumbles away 
It is the same old druid Time as ever, 
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat, 
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear. 
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew 
Your cosmopolitan sympathies, 
Now you have touched this English hand 
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure 
To cross the sleeping green between. 
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass 
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes, 
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder, 
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth, 
The torn fields of France. 
What do you see in our eyes 
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens? 
What quaver -what heart aghast? 
Poppies whose roots are in men's veins 
Drop, and are ever dropping; 
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust. 

Isaac Rosenberg was a British war poet killed at dawn April 1st, 1918 on the Western Front in France.

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Isaac Rosenberg

When the Americans arrive they also bring a contingent of Black servicemen with them. They have to serve separate, but with equal chance to die of course. 

”Black units were transferred to French command, thereby sparing white American units from having to go to war alongside them. The German, true to the itinerary that would make them within a generation the most noxiously racist nation to have ever lived, protested over having to fight black American troops on the Front.”

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African American Soldiers WW1. Photo taken 1919 "Some of the colored men of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action."

It seems to me that we missed a wonderful opportunity to win the war. If it was a point of honor for the Germans not to fight black troops then why didn’t we just march those men right down their throats. 

I know we Americans grow up learning that the “shot heard round the world” happened at Concord, Massachusetts in 1775, but in 1914 a young man of 19, a revolutionary, a member of the Black Hand by the name of Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand heir to the Austro-Hungarian Throne. The Archduke’s death, provided the spark to start a war that would put 67 million men in uniform and kill one out of every sixth man who served. That one shot was truly heard around the world and led to the deaths of over 16,000,000 people from nearly thirty different nations. 

This book is only 194 pages, but Stephen O’Shea packs those pages not only with historical information, but also with his personal observations of current conditions of this landscape torn apart by war. My notes were extensive and I barely scratched the surface of what O’Shea conveyed to me. He did find his great-uncle who died on the Somme and shares a cemetery with Raymond Asquith, eldest son of Herbert Henry Asquith the prime minister deposed by David Lloyd George. 

23914 Private
T. Conlon
Royal Dublin Fusiliers
6th September 1916 Age 20

I still cannot shake of the superstition that the only past that is real, that exists at all, is the one contained within the memories of living people. When they die, the past they hold within them simply vanishes, and those of us who come after cannot inherit their experience, only preserve the myth of its existence. We can mark the spot where the cliff was washed away by the sea, but we cannot repair the wound the sea has made. From The Russian Album by Michael Ignatieff