One hundred years ago last week, the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Bosnia Serb nationalist.
In addition to causing consternation at the archduke convention (as reported by The Onion), the act is considered the spark that ignited the Great War.
The Onion also reported: ‘WAR DECLARED BY ALL;’ ‘AUSTRIA DECLARES WAR ON SERBIA DECLARES WAR ON GERMANY DECLARES WAR ON FRANCE DECLARES WAR ON TURKEY DECLARES WAR ON RUSSIA DECLARES WAR ON BULGARIA DECLARES WAR ON BRITAIN;’ OTTOMAN EMPIRE ALMOST DECLARES WAR ON ITSELF.’
The only thing clear about these events in the summer of 1914 is that 100 years is not too soon to make fun of one of the great cataclysms of world history.
Probably the folks who went through it didn’t think the war was amusing. But they’re all gone now, and it’s too late to ask.
When I was young, I knew scores of World War I veterans. But being the self-absorbed adolescent I was, it didn’t occur to me ask them what they did in the Great War. We were still preoccupied by the PTSD fallout of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. World War I seemed long ago and far away.
Looking back a hundred years, it’s clear the First World War swept away all the rotting detritus of European royal houses and geopolitical power centers, clearing the way for all the revolutions, reforms, and bloodletting of the next century.
I’d love to discuss the details of the war with some eyewitnesses, but I waited too long. Both my grandfathers were in uniform during the war. Grandpa Addison was a corporal who never left the U.S. Grandpa Lawrence was a sailor who went to France, learned to speak French fluently, and returned home to Minnesota. He not only stayed on the farm after he saw Paree, he soon purchased his own acreage in the Catskill Mountains and operated a dairy farm.
I never asked him what he did in France. There is a picture of him dressed in a Shore Patrol uniform, and I could make up colorful stories of breaking up fights in Parisian bars, hauling drunken sailors to the brig, or whispering sweet nothings to some douce jeune fille across a bistro table. But none of those things sound like the Grandpa. And, sadly, I will never know.
I can only assume, then, that like others of his generation, Lawrence was profoundly affected by the war that cost 6 million lives, uprooted millions more, and changed the world forever. But he never talked about it.
If I had it to do all over again, I’d ask him about it. I can’t be sure he would have broken his lifelong taciturnity to tell the tales. But I wish I had asked.
Now all I can do is offer him a posthumous thanks for his service.
Whatever it was.