A Soldier on the Western Front

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A majestic sunrise splashed across the morning sky above a normally verdant Belgian countryside. The morning's vibrant chatter of songbirds was muted by thunderous explosions launching domes of earth into the sky, while the aroma of ripe autumn fields was overwhelmed by the reeking stench of gangrene and bandages soaked with carbolic acid. This nightmare was never supposed to happen.

During the visit to Sarajevo of a not-so-well liked archduke from Austria-Hungary, underground Serbian nationalists protesting foreign control of their region assassinated him. In time the Austrians claimed the Serbian government was involved, and issued an ultimatum intended to crush the nationalist movement and cement their control of the Balkans. They hoped a skirmish would develop, with their ally Germany anxious to assist them with their goal of conquest.

But as often happens, things didn't go quite as planned. Unrealized defensive alliances drew in most surrounding countries in Europe plus Russia, the United States and even Japan. Suddenly the nations involved in an ongoing arms race were sucked into the vortex of a global war. By the autumn of 1914 Germany was fighting Russia on its east while Allied forces were entrenched along a stagnant line in Belgium where neither side could move.

The Western Front became a bloody gristmill for millions of young men fighting and dying without a known reason or cause.

Looking back on the terrible events of 100 years ago calls to mind a good friend who was there at the Western Front—and a message of hope for a future in which wars will at last cease. 

Reminder of a world and a time long ago

Over half a century after World War I ended, my new wife and I were living in British Columbia, Canada. We had become close friends with an elderly German immigrant couple I will refer to as Mr. and Mrs. Paul Brollech. Their warmth was replete with Old World wisdom and advice conveyed with heavy German accents. They managed well on a small farm where they tended enough crops, fruit trees and livestock to support their personal needs and give to others, including some for us and our new baby at times.

After a few years of sharing farming methods and authentic German meals with us, I felt comfortable asking Mr. Brollech a personal question. One evening over cards I casually enquired, "How did you get the tremors in your legs, arms and face?" 

It seemed an innocent enough question—after all he had just celebrated his 80th birthday. I assumed he would say that's what happens when you get old.

But Mr. Brollech froze at the question—though his body kept shaking, a little more so now. His wife's smile vanished and a scowl snapped into its place. She seemed concerned, fearful of some secret he might reveal. I had stepped into a private place where I suddenly felt very unwelcome.

Five years prior to that evening, I had been bicycling across Belgium with a college friend. The sunny springtime had given way to cold rain blowing onto the landscape and onto us all the way from Brussels to Aachen, Germany. We became sick with fever while riding in the rain and camping at night in wet sleeping bags inside a leaky tent. Knowing a little about the history of the area, we could only imagine what previous teenage boys who marched and camped here before us had experienced as they were hunted by and were the hunters of other young men.

We rode through endless miles of open landscapes with hardly a town or person to be seen, just field after field of budding vegetation studded with tree-lined boundaries and meandering ditches. It was somewhere in Belgium, in one of those snaking ditches, that a teenage Paul Brollech got his shakes.

A young soldier's story

It was painful for Mr. Brollech to speak about it, and Mrs. Brollech worried that doing so it might somehow jeopardize their citizenship in their new adopted country. But he finally spoke. He wanted me to know. "I was a German soldier in World War I under Kaiser Wilhelm," he stated with sadness and regret. Now, at age 80, he was catapulted back to events when he was 18.

Conscripted to support his proud country, he was caught up in the nationalistic fervor of the times. It had all begun innocently enough for him—joining the crowds of other youths to serve God and country under the noble Kaiser. There was training in warfare, the latest in advanced weapons and materiel, lots of new young friends all wearing smart uniforms, and the citizens busily purchasing war bonds in their support.

With deepening emotions (and accompanying facial tremors) he attempted to put into words the private hell he had suffered for 60 years: "We were just kids. We didn't even know what we were doing there. We never knew what we were fighting for. I still don't know."

Hell on earth

At first the German army swept rapidly across much of Belgium and northern France for a quick dispersion of an anticipated defense by the French. But other alliances propelled greater armies to rush forward en masse with the expectation of repelling the German forces from the region.

The clash of a massive buildup of war machinery on both sides created a stalemated battlefront. Mr. Brollech and his new comrades took up arms along a rough line of 475 miles of trenches that stretched from the North Sea southward to Switzerland. It would become infamously known as the Western Front.

Attempting to break through the stalemate, massive shells pounded down on both sides, sending shrapnel down the entire length of trenches and ripping apart anyone caught in its path. Zigzag trenches were designed to localize the shrapnel's reach, along with restricting the range of enemy bullets.

Over time multilayered trenching systems and corresponding underground bunkers became permanent and elaborate. Both sides dug in for what would prove to be a long and deadly conflict.

A temporary truce

Five months into the war the young men fighting on both sides still retained some religious and humane feelings. In recalling the Christmas of 1914, Mr. Brollech laughed aloud as he described the developing spectacle along the Front.

"On Christmas Eve, everything was quiet. Then we started singing carols, and they did too. Then we sang carols to each other!" The next morning everyone walked out of their trenches and joined together in no man's land to spend the day together.

They laughed, swapped stories, food and cigarettes. He explained that the German cigarettes tasted terrible and they swapped all they could for British and even a few American ones.

"We said to each other, ‘What are we doing this for?' and nobody knew." He said the British soldiers were nice and he really liked them. "We were all saying that we had no bad feelings for anybody and how nice it was to be together."

Afterward they all went back to their trenches and let each other have it the next morning. A fellow German youth and veteran, Eric Remarque, would later write, "We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces."

Desperate means to break the stalemate

By the summer of 1916 pressure was increasing to find a way to break through the stalemate along the Western Front. The British and French hatched a plan to pulverize a section of the German line at the Somme River and then race through the gap. On June 24 they bombarded a section of German defenses with 1.7 million artillery shells, then raced across no man's land certain of victory. Too late did they realize that many of their shells had failed to explode, leaving many German fortifications intact. Helplessly exposed, 60,000 young British men were gunned down, most during the first hour. The bloody stalemate continued.

German soldiers also made an attempt to make a breach in the Front. Forbidden as being uncivilized prior to World War I, the development and use of poison gas became justified by all sides in an effort to break the stalemate along the Front.

The Germans' first use of chlorine gas was unknowingly quite effective. However, they didn't fully realize the impact of the gas cloud they floated onto the British, nor were they desirous to rush into that cloud themselves. So, while several miles of the Western Front was temporarily abandoned, nobody capitalized on the breach.

Allied forces, decimated by the gas, realized its potential and began developing their own versions of chemical warfare and protective gear to defend against it.

With his head and arms shaking, Mr. Brollech stated, "I shake because I was gassed by the British with mustard gas." He didn't elaborate on what that experience was like. But I would later learn what it meant. Mustard gas caused the skin of victims to blister. They would begin to vomit, and their eyes became very sore. The gas caused internal and external bleeding and stripped the bronchial tubes of their protective mucous membrane, causing great pain.

A nurse treating soldiers with mustard gas burns said of the victims of gas attacks: "They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets. Gas burns must be agonizing because usually the other cases do not complain, even with the worst wounds, but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out" (Leo Van Bergen, Before My Helpless Sight: Suffering, Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front, 1914-1918, 2009, p. 184).

Partial exposures to gasses, coupled with wearing hot, confining protective gear compounded the already miserable lives of everyone along the Front. By the end of the war in 1918, some one million soldiers and civilians had been injured by poison gas. Yet in spite of the cruel inflictions of pain and lifetimes of suffering, the use of chemical warfare had no measurable impact on the outcome of the war. Mr. Brollech was disabled for life—for nothing.

War's deadly toll

The combination of incessant shelling, constant dismemberments, airborne chemicals and dying friends all took their toll on the youths who fought there. Eric Remarque's famous novel All Quiet on the Western Front was written to try to describe the extreme physical and mental stresses of the war. In the book's preface he stated, "I will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped [its] shells, were destroyed by the war."

Somewhere on the Allies' side of the line was another young soldier named John. As deadly shells exploded in trenches on either side, death and dismemberment became commonplace. Young John cried over the decimation of his youthful friends in his platoon. Eventually he too fell victim of a gas attack from the German side. John and Paul, two young soldiers, were disabled for life. One became my good friend, the other my grandfather—whose name I bear.

The fields in Flanders, Verdun and the Somme saw millions of young men entrenched in earth in areas so devastated by the battles of 1916 that some were declared Zone Rouge (Red Zone)—so destroyed and permeated with unexploded shells that habitation was no longer possible.

Even today the scars of World War I remain visible on the Belgian landscape. Zigzag hollows and circular depressions in fields are scars of entrenchments and heavy shelling from a century ago. To this day modern farmers continually unearth unexploded ordinance that must be defused and removed.

I was recently back in Belgium. The flight from Africa slowly descended over a springtime countryside that is peaceful and productive. The diverse landscape and productive agriculture still cannot mask the scars of 1914-18; the seemingly eroding gullies meandering through fields were actually the zigzag trenches of the Western Front. The subtle circular depressions in the fields of grain are craters where artillery shells shattered the earth and hurled it skyward.

A coming time of peace

Regrettably, the world has not seen the end of war. Even now powerful forces are at work to reshape the world into prophesied end-time alliances and coalitions that will dominate the globe in a period the Bible calls a time of "great tribulation" (Matthew 24:21). The book of Revelation foretells that literally billions of people will die before mankind learns the painful lesson that human-caused wars resolve little and eventually lead to only further bloodshed and suffering.

But Bible prophecy is ultimately a message of great hope. At a time when humanity faces extinction in a final great worldwide conflagration (Matthew 24:22), Jesus Christ will return to usher in His glorious Kingdom of peace.

Then, as foretold long ago by the prophet Isaiah, the world will at last see peace. Under the reign of the long-prophesied Messiah, mankind will finally wage peace, not war. "He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4). We should all be praying daily, as Jesus Christ instructs in the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:10, "Your kingdom come"!

This kingdom to come will address the challenge to human dignity of lives cut short or radically altered by war. The Bible teaches that all people throughout history who have suffered this way will live again and be offered an opportunity to come to know God and the salvation He offers!