The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

by Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

With the death of Frank Buckles on February 27, 2011 there are no surviving US veterans of World War I.  Worldwide, a handful of WWI veterans are alive today; soon there will be none.

For the United States, World War I was our introduction to the wars of Europe, but our participation was short as compared to our allies and enemies.  The death toll for World War I was staggering, for it was the first truly modern war; a war not of maneuver but of attrition in futile attacks to seize pieces of terrain.

Below are some selected statistics from WWI, look at the numbers, look at the percentage of the population who died, I have extracted the number of civilian deaths, but if added in, it, changes the equation significantly.  We talk of war amongst the people as if it is something new, World War I was fought amongst the people, the people of Belgium, of France, Luxemburg, Russia, and Germany.

Select Allies of WWI Population Military deaths Military wounded Cascualities  as % of population
UK, Aust, NZ,Canada 58,200,000 1,030,060 2,090,212 5.36%
Belgium 7,400,000 58,637 44,686 1.40%
France 39,600,000 1,397,800 4,266,000 14.30%
Italy 35,600,000 651,000 953,886 4.51%
Russian Empire 175,100,000 1,811,000 4,950,000 3.86%
United States 92,000,000 116,708 205,690 0.35%
Sub Total 407,900,000 5,065,205 10,420,262 3.80%
Select Central
Powers WWI
Population (millions) Military deaths Military wounded Cascualities as % of population
Austria-Hungary 51,400,000 1,100,000 3,620,000 9.18%
German Empire 64,900,000 2,050,897 4,247,143 9.70%
Ottoman Empire 21,300,000 771,844 400,000 5.50%
Sub Total 137,600,000 3,922,741 8,267,143 8.86%
Total 545,500,000 8,987,946 18,687,405 5.07%

World War I has always had a tenuous hold on the American Psyche.  The American generation that fought this war was not called the greatest generation.  In many ways the nation turned their back on them; they didn’t get a GI Bill and a Republican Congress cut the promised veterans bonus benefits in order to balance the budget.  When they protested this slight by Congress, another Republican President ordered the Army to clear them from the Anacostia flats; the same Army in which they proudly served.  In short the Veterans of WWI return to the United States and continued with their lives.  But World War I had a lingering effect on this generation.  Some came back and were never the same; today we would call it PTSD.  Others came back broken and maimed by enemy fire.  I can remember Colonel Jennings C. Wise VMI Class of 1902 who lost leg in World War I, visiting my Dad’s Law Office.  Still others came back and the gas they had inhaled shortened their lives.  My mother’s father; the grandfather I never knew, Lee Hoomes Williamson died in 1941 as a result of the gas he inhaled.

On March 15, 2011, the Ides of March, Frank Buckles was reverently buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  Laid to rest not far from the grave of General John J. Pershing, Corporal Buckles was carried to his final resting place on a Caisson pulled by a team of Horses.  Laid to rest amongst his fellow veterans of that long forgotten war.  Now the last Doughboy of World War One has answered that final roll call and joined his comrades.


By Wilfred Owen

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

 Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori est are- the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an Ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean “It is sweet and right.” The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.

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