Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Old Battlefields

(Source)
A few of the comments in Juvat's Monday post really resonated with me, let me reproduce them here -

Yeah, I had the opportunity to take a guided tour of the Okinawa Battle. It started offshore in a landing craft and came ashore on the beach. It was an interesting experience to be standing there, with your nose at the ramp and hear the bottom hit the beach. The realization that, if this were real, your life expectancy was probably measured in seconds was "educational" to say the least.

I always wondered how I'd react, hence the prayer.

Living on an island that was wrenched, inch by bloody scary inch, from the hands of the Japanese, changed my view of war forever (and this was at 7 years of age.) Being able to daily walk the island and see bomb and shell craters, find bits and pieces of exploded stuff (and one time finding a case of Jap grenades while snorkeling, yikes, more scared of them than the sharks) and all the other little reminders that three days of extreme combat occurred under my feet, well, was sobering. That was at Kwajalein, and it was considered a 'cake-walk.'
 
I can imagine. Or, maybe, I can't imagine.

About every two years I read the official US Army documentation on the invasion. And I can, in my mind, walk in their steps, remembering where I was, what was there at the time I was. Sobering. At the end of the island-island before you got to the 'we added extra room on the island-island' there is/was 'Bunker Hill' which was a Jap concrete command post where the US forces had to do unthinkable things in order to secure it. So strongly built they just covered it up and left it in place. No ghosts there. We played on it during the day, but come dusk the general feeling was decidedly creepy.

Visited Cape Canaveral one year on a tour, which included the Apollo 1 launch pad. Their ghosts haunt that place, too.

I don't think I can handle going to someplace like Iwo or Okinawa or the trenches in France. Cold, windy places, no matter the time of the year.
 
Visited Ypres while visiting NATO HQ on a trip to Sarajevo in 97. There was a Museum set up with intact trenches that you could travel down. Couldn't do it. Could walk along and look in, but walk in as if I were there, no way.

When I was less than 3, my Dad and Mom were stationed at Naha AB Okinawa. There quarters were on Suri Ridge. Mom, later, said she wouldn't let me play outside unless she was there. Heck, EOD was still active when I was there 35 years later. Mom also said she didn't like being outside after dark. Said it was just too eerie. So, yeah, I understand where you're coming from.

Andrew and Juvat were talking of places where combat took place, where men (and often women and children, especially on Okinawa) died, in horrible ways. Places they had been and experienced long after the day of battle.

I have walked the ground of a few old battlefields -
  • Fort Ticonderoga
  • The Hürtgenwald
  • Bastogne
  • Elsenborn Ridge
  • Stoumont
  • La Gleize
  • Krinkelt-Rocherath
  • Quatre Bras
  • Waterloo
They haunt me. Sometimes they haunt my dreams, perhaps I read too much military history. I have studied warfare for as long as I can remember. The great battles and campaigns, the generals, the admirals, and (especially) the common folk who actually go forth into battle. The ones who spill their blood (and more, for battle is a very messy experience), the ones you seldom read about unless they are decorated for bravery.

Most Americans of my generation are familiar with Fort Ticonderoga from our Revolution, seized by a small band of men led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold. The latter fellow was a pretty fine leader until he let his ego and lust for position override his common sense. The Battle of Saratoga would no doubt have turned out differently had General Arnold not been there. We won due to his bravery on that field. I won't judge him, I wasn't there when he turned his coat and betrayed the fledgling United States.

Unless you've "been there, done that" it's hard to understand what motivates a human being in times of high stress and the nastiness of battle.

But Ticonderoga (then held by the French and known to them as Fort Carillon) was the scene of a vicious fight during the French and Indian War. George Howe, brother to Admiral Richard Howe and General William Howe (both of whom you should know from the American Revolution) was killed in action there in July of 1758. When the Green Mountain Boys, commanded by Allen and Arnold, got there in 1775 it was undermanned, though still an important post. It was taken without a fight.

I've stood on the reconstructed ramparts of that fort, walked the forests surrounding it, I swear I could hear the echoes of ancient days in those rugged hills south of Lake Champlain and north of Lake George. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up even now.

The Battle of The Hürtgenwald was a nasty fight fought in miserable weather starting in September of 1944 and running right up to the start of the Battle of the Bulge. My great uncle John was an infantryman in the 4th Infantry Division there. His war ended during that battle, wounded by a bullet which pierced his helmet and grazed his scalp. Rattled him badly, probably concussed, he was evacuated. By the time he recovered, the war was over.

In the same battle the father of a NATO colleague of mine was captured. His war was over as well. Good thing, my colleague's Dad was an infantryman of the German Wehrmacht.

I still have Uncle John's helmet, the hole in it is a constant reminder of how close we stand to eternity.

I have walked the area, taking pictures so that my uncle could see what it looked like now. Not the same on a pleasant sunny day in summer. I should have gone in the fall, in the rain. But no one in their right mind would visit those ravines in a wet German autumn. Yet men were expected to fight there in 1944.

Now Bastogne, Elsenborn Ridge, Stoumont, La Gleize, and Krinkelt-Rocherath are all battles fought within the larger Battle of the Bulge. One must be careful walking the woods in that area. They still find unexploded ordnance and human remains 74 years later.

As they do in many places in the world where hubris and greed have led our species to wage war upon each other.

Quatre Bras and Waterloo are, of course, two of the battles fought in Napoléon Bonaparte's last military campaign. I have walked both areas, though I concentrated on Waterloo due to the field being relatively well-preserved as opposed to the other. Quatre Bras, Ligny, and Wavre were the other three battles of that campaign. Waterloo gets all the press, it was where Napoléon's imperial ambitions were finally crushed. The other three battles are often forgotten.

Waterloo haunts me like no other place on this earth. Upwards of 40,000 men (and perhaps a lady or two disguised as soldiers, it happened more often than many historians acknowledge) fought and died there, or later of their wounds. At least 10,000 horses perished as well. All in an area no greater than five square miles. That's more than one dead or wounded soldier for every square yard! In reality the areas upon the field where the fighting was heaviest were very small. Afterwards one visitor from Brussels said that one could walk across the field without stepping on the ground, the corpses were so thick.

A horrifying place.

The area surrounding the battlefield has changed since I was last there in 1998, two new parking lots (at least) have been added to accommodate the tourists. While one of these new "car parks" was being dug up in 2012, a nearly complete skeleton was unearthed. The ball which killed him still embedded in his rib cage.

Historians believe the man was a German soldier, named Friedrich Brandt. A Hanoverian serving in what was known as the King's German Legion. You can read about Soldat Brandt here, here, and here.

But who was this soldier? Apparently he left no relatives behind, no wife to claim a widow's pension, no grieving parents to mourn him. He had a pronounced curvature of the spine, which would disqualify someone from service in a modern army. But in those days if you could shoulder a musket and your pack, and stay in ranks, then that was good enough.

Perhaps he was a farm laborer, perhaps he had no trade, no family, no prospects other than to join the army (it still happens today). But whoever he was, whatever his history, he marched to Waterloo in the army of the Duke of Wellington. A member of du Plat's brigade stationed on the Allies right flank.

When his battalion was ordered forward, he marched with his comrades into the smoke and fiery hell of battle. At some point he was hit, he may have staggered forward another pace or two, he may have dropped to his knees instantly. Gasping for breath perhaps, unsure of what had just happened.

If he noticed at all, he would have seen his mates continuing on without him, vanishing into the smoke.

We do know that his brigade commander, Colonel Georg Carl August du Plat was also hit that day. The colonel lingered on only to die of his wounds some three days after the battle.

Undoubtedly Soldat Brandt laid there on the field until he died. After the battle he was no doubt stripped of his possessions, probably his uniform as well, and dumped naked into a mass grave with the multitude of other dead men in the immediate area. Remember, there were thousands of them.

There his body lay for 197 years.

It is the duty of the living to remember the dead. At least that's how I see it.

So, rest in peace Friedrich Brandt, rest in peace soldier, your duty is done, you are not forgotten.

The King's German Legion returns to Hanover in 1816.
Friedrich Brandt was not among them.

(Source)

62 comments:

  1. Wow. A very sober and sobering post. Lex would be/is proud of you for continuing the walk that he took with us.

    Thanks for the post.

    Paul L. Quandt

    ReplyDelete
  2. I was in Epps, Louisiana doing some radio work, and Vicksburg is just down the road. I got there an hour before closing and drove around the park. The land is still scared from 30 some miles of trenches.

    I went back a few years later looking for my great-relative's unit. He was in the 4th Missouri under Gen. Sterling Price. He was captured at Corinth, but his unit was in Vicksburg after that. Right under the guns of an artillery unit. Barely 100 yards from Union lines. What moved me most was the amount on unknowns buried there, and the scars the land still bore....

    It was quiet, but not peaceful, not by a long shot.

    Great post, stark memories...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Quiet, but not peaceful..."

      Profound.

      Delete
    2. STxAR, thanks. I was going to comment on Vicksburg, but into my fifth paragraph, I decided it was a post, so you'll just have to wait. But thanks for the idea.

      And "Quiet, but not peaceful..." is profound and apt.

      Delete
    3. A Juvat post on Vicksburg? I can hardly wait!

      Delete
  3. There are just some things that still carry the horror of the moment forever.

    The ossuaries in France from WWI are an extremely stark reminder of the horrors of war.

    Mine was the Japanese cemetery on Kwajalein. 4,300 Japanese (and Koreans) killed, and the remains identified or found fit into a space the size of a shed, maybe. The rest? Pulverized during the intense bombardment and fighting and cleanup. Asked my father where the rest of the bodies were, and he said, "All around us, wherever we walk." Scary, sobering words for an 8 year old.

    The first military cemetary I ever visited, someplace in California, when I was around 6, was also pretty disturbing. All those rows of crosses, perfectly spaced, covering so much space. Mostly WWII, Korean and Vietnam dead. Brrrr, I can feel the chill from that moment spanning the times to get me now.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I've walked around Antietam. It looks rather peaceful, considering that 24,000 men were killed there in one day.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 24,000 in one day. It boggles the mind.

      Delete
    2. I've walked Antietam, with Dad and Little Juvat. The bridge is a very picturesque place, until you remember what happened there.
      I've also walked Cold Harbor. 5000 in one hour.

      Delete
    3. Cold Harbor, the very name shakes me to my core.

      Delete
  5. Brings back memories. I spent about 9 months on Guam, about 18 long, long months on Okinawa- visited Tinian and Saipan during my time there. I was dumbfounded as I stood in the jungle, on those beaches, those cliffs- wondering How Could They, How Did They. While the jungle had reclaimed much, there were still many remnants of those brutal, vicious, terrifying, bloody days. Standing on the Jap batteries right on the beach facing where our guys came ashore- even almost fifty years later I still shake my head. Guts & Glory had to be commonplace.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We must try to remember those men, and now women, who fight our wars. They sacrifice much.

      Delete
  6. May I recommend Lexington and Concord, Breed's Hill? Done Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, Yorktown and a few lesser sites.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very little left of Breed's Hill battlefield, there is a monument and a whole lotta houses. In addition the terrain has changed a great deal since the day of the battle. But I do want to make it up that way, as much as I like to avoid Boston, I need to get up that way and soon. (I haven't even visited Old Ironsides yet!)

      OTOH, Lexington and Concord are still recognizable, though not as open as they were in 1775.

      Delete
    2. Might I suggest Mid-October? Hmmm?

      Delete
  7. Is it coincidence or irony that MB and I were at Pearl Harbor most of the day yesterday?
    The only things that were firsts for me were the Battleshp Missouri and Air Museum tours,
    It is amazing how quiet a few hundred people can be out of respect for those who are still there 76 years later.
    The holes in the walls at the museum hangars from the strafing are also a strong reminder of the physicality of battle.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think not.

      I've never been to the Arizona Memorial. Even seeing pictures of it tears me up. I don't know how I'd handle it...

      Or if I could.

      Delete
    2. I've mentioned that USCINCPAC HQ used to hold retirement ceremonies aboard her. So, I've been there several time. Each one was, as we say around here, "Extremely Dusty".

      Delete
    3. OldAFSarge,

      I was on the Arizona Memorial when I was 8 or so. It still haunts me. And it is amazing how cold and spooky I remember it feeling. I have written about my experiences on her before, and I still feel touched by her and her crew (yes, you can feel them too.)

      I do like that the Government allows survivors of that ship to be interned after they die. Really drives it home how much a ship can be 'home.' (And, I am sure, a touch of survivor's guilt. Can't even begin to imagine how much That haunts a man.)

      Delete
    4. I find it nice (if that term really fits) that the powers-that-be allow survivors of the Arizona to be interned there when they pass.

      Really goes to show how much a ship can be family. (Or, maybe, some version of survivor's guilt. Can't even imagine how it would feel to be one of the men that survived that particular hell.)

      Delete
    5. That is something we have done right.

      Survivor's guilt is a very real thing. But wishing to be interred on the Arizona I understand, to be with those you served with. I get that. It's why I want to be interred at Arlington. I feel great comfort knowing that I'll be in fine company.

      Delete
    6. Andrew, I had to pull one of your comments out of the spam filter. Blogger is acting oddly today, as it sometimes does.

      Delete
    7. Hmmm, wondering where that comment went. Oh, well, at least Blogger seems to be moving faster.

      Delete
    8. Yes, perhaps they fixed whatever was ailing it.

      Lately a number of regular commenters have gone straight to spam, no reason that I can see for it.

      Delete
  8. Did you get a chance to visit any Concentration Camp sites in Europe? I wonder if they'd be just as haunting as the battlefields. I toured Schlossenberg, but as it's mostly a neighborhood with homes now, it's not as somber as I expected.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I did not visit any of those sites.

      I'm not familiar with Schlossenberg. I'm sure if you had gone to Poland and seen Auschwitz, that would have been a different matter indeed.

      My bet is that the camps would be a whole different level of horror than a battlefield. The ones in Poland killed millions. All in less than six years...

      It's still a number which many cannot (or refuse to) fathom.

      Delete
    2. Visited Dachau in 1997. Short answer: yes, only worse.

      For me, places like Antietam feel like hallowed ground, where men fought and died for history. As part of a BATTLE, we can distract ourselves with thoughts of gallantry and tactics and unit movement...

      But Dachau just felt like a hole in the world where all the possible miseries of the human condition got poured. There was nothing enjoyable about it, at all. If battlefields are monuments to the forces of history bumping into each other, Dachau is a monument to a vortex of crap landing on that particular scrap of real estate.

      I don't want to go back.

      Delete
    3. Don't ever want to go to any concentration camp. From the films, pictures and accounts, they are very dark places. Horror can taint a physical location.

      I was in a math class in Junior High School during the late 70's, one of the heights of Holocaust Denial. Some dumb classmate (not a friend) spouted out anti-Holocaust bullscat. The teacher, an older withdrawn man, just got blander. The next day, we didn't have a math lesson. No, we got to find out that our teacher was a photographer assigned to specifically document the horrors of those camps. And he kept copies of the negatives (for whatever reason.) We got 50 minutes of intense immersion into what he saw. He took a vacation for a month after that. I wish I could have unseen what he saw, but, well, there was no doubt that what happened actually happened.

      Years later, I saw "The Big Red 1" with Lee Marvin, and the scenes in the concentration camp were appallingly accurate.

      Prisons are another place I don't want to visit 'for fun.' Not that I believe in most 'supernatural' things, but, well, let's just say I don't want to play with fire.

      Delete
    4. Well said, a bear. It's as I imagined.

      Delete
    5. Andrew - In junior high school there was a series on television based on William L. Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. There was footage of the camps after they were captured. I still have the occasional nightmare about that.

      It's why I cherish Israel. As my Jewish friends say, "Never again."

      Delete
    6. Oh, most assuredly, "Never Again."

      I cannot imagine how the 'snowflakes' of today would handle the newsreels and tv shows we saw. Let alone watch the horror show I did in that class.

      One of the most iconic (to me) photos of the WWII Island Hopping campaign is the burnt Japanese head on a spike on the front of a Jap tank. That one photo shows the whole horror of those battles, well, to me at least. http://time.com/3518085/life-behind-the-picture-skull-on-a-tank-guadalcanal-1942/

      What they did to us, in battle and as prisoners, was horrible. What we had to do to them to dig them out of their forts, pillboxes and warrens was past horrible, for both sides.

      Delete
    7. Copy that on the Pacific fighting. I've seen film footage of a Japanese soldier trying to escape from a bunker. He was hit by a flamethrower. What a horrible way to die.

      Delete
    8. Pouring lots of aviation fuel into bunkers and lighting it was one of the preferred methods of 'pest control' (a phrase I read in an Army report.) Horrible times, horrible measures.

      And the scary thing is the Imperial Japanese Soldier looks positively 'western civilized' compared to some of the opponents we as a nation face today. The fact that, overall, our service members haven't gone all crazy and beserk and commit atrocities all over the place in these modern times says a lot about our nation's commitment to values.

      Delete
    9. Some of the opponents we face today have never been civilized. Japan has an old civilization, different than ours, yes, but still a civilization.

      Delete
  9. It would not surprise me if I was related to Friedrich. The Brandt family supposedly came from Hanover although it’s a very unusual name. It’s more of a Teutonic name than just a German name. I cannot imagine the courage it would take to wade out as that gate dropped or advanced forward in a line.

    I had a neighbor who is a character. He was one of those fellows that you suspected was half of BS but you didn’t know what the half was. I do know that he took me to a reunion for chosin reservoir veterans.

    Said he was a veteran of Tarawa. I knew about that battle where hundreds of Marines were machine gunned before they even got to shore, all because the Navy would not believe this coast watcher and sent their landing craft in at low tide.

    Many were stuck on the coral and from that experience others stopped about 8 feet of water just let people out.

    I asked him how he survived then he said he would drop down to the bottom of the water -Remember they had a very heavy feel pack -walk for a few feet and then push himself up for air.

    And as for Friedrich I’m sure one of these days we will have a laugh together. My duty was relatively benign compared with his.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The spam filter (for reasons known only to Blogger) trapped your comment. I found it!

      Tarawa, another Pacific War horror story!

      Delete
    2. Bloody Tarawa. The name says it all.

      The color movie, filmed by combat reporters, of the bodies washing back and forth in the red water, right before the seawall, was and is one of the more shocking bits of film from WWII. Horrible.

      William, sounds like your neighbor was in the first or second wave. That he survived is a testament to his strength. I've seen the pictures, and played on reefs much like those, where one minute you are walking on a flat surface, the next dropping into a shell hole or a chasm between coral heads. Can't even think about doing it while under fire.

      All of the lessons learned from that hell-spot were what led to the successful invasions after. Especially in the Marshall Islands during Operation Flintlock, which were where the lessons were first tried.

      Everyone remembers the European and African campaigns. And the Western Pacific. The Central Pacific is the forgotten war.

      Delete
    3. Some of us remember the Central Pacific. Bloody it was.

      Delete
  10. It is a bit weird - I put a comments in via my iPhone - Google complained - re-logged in - supposedly everything OK - but - as the other Brandt would have said, "Es ist vergangen".

    The Brandt name is very old and really isn't just German but Teutonic - although funny thing, my Brandt side is supposed to be from Hannover. Never made the effort to investigate. Most likely Friedrich and I are related!

    It is hard to fathom the courage it would take at, say, Gettysburg at Picket's Charge, just walking up a line and watching people get mowed down. Or Waterloo.

    Those at Waterloo all mentioned the dead horses.

    Probably would he as Hell is - on earth.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Or, even worse, climbing out of that trench at Ypres into machine gun fire. Gettysburg and Waterloo only had single shots between reloads. Machine guns had significantly more.

      Delete
    2. The 'Spandau Ballet' is something straight out of Hell itself.

      Delete
    3. William - If I recall, the author of "All Quiet on the Western Front" described the particular horror (that word seems to be in use today a lot) of horses injured from artillery, and the particularly haunting screams they made. Grown men, hardened in trench warfare, openly crying as they try to put the horses down.

      I have heard an injured horse do the death scream once. That once was enough.

      Delete
    4. Wow William, perhaps Friedrich was a relation.

      Hell on Earth indeed.

      Delete
    5. Juvat and Andrew, I cannot bear the thought of those wounded animals. We know what might happen, they do not.

      Delete
    6. Watched a documentary regarding war dogs in Afganistan. When the camera carrying dog jumps on a grenade was when I lost it. Kudos to the network (I think NatGeo) for showing it, but, God, had to hug my wife and my dog for an hour.

      They serve us. We put them through hell. Yet we need them, the dogs, horses, mules. Wish we didn't, but we do.

      Delete
  11. I had the pleasure of a personal guided tour of the Antietam battlefield when I was in college; my guide was a high school friend who, with her husband, were both avid Civil War reenactors and historians. Burnside's Bridge was the sight I remembered most--we were there in either October or November so it wasn't like it was during the battle, but I imagine it would be beautiful in September. Before Burnside fed ranks of Union soldiers onto that narrow stone span (only four men abreast) into the rifles of Confederate sharpshooters. Certain death, yet he kept pouring men into the meatgrinder. He later did the same thing at the Battle of The Crater, if I recall correctly.

    The other thing that stuck in my mind about Antietam is that the Civil War could have ended there under a more aggressive Union commander; Lee threw in his last reserves in order to escape and McClellan was hesitant to press him.

    I don't live far from Gettysburg, so I'd like to visit that battlefield again; this time I'll pay more attention to Little Round Top....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I need to get to both Antietam and Gettysburg.

      Both are within reasonable distance of the DC area. As are a number of other Civil War battlefields.

      Now convincing The Nuke that I need to use her place as a base of operations for a week. Or two...

      Delete
    2. I think both should be seen in the summer or early fall to get a better feel of what it must have been like for the soldiers involved. Those wool uniforms the Union soldiers wore must have been intolerable in July; summers here are not only hot but humid....

      Delete
    3. I did Civil War reenacting way back in the day. I am very familiar with wool uniforms and hot, humid days.

      But yeah, summer would be best.

      Delete
    4. Gettysburg is nice, but MAN, what a zoo. So many tourists.

      Delete
  12. I have been to Fort Ti and wondered around those walls several times, looking out over them. And the Saratoga Battlefield used to be practically in my backyard. I used to spend my lunch times there when I was doing home care nursing in the area. It is beautiful in the fall to look over the Hudson Valley, but it takes little imagination to picture the British marching across the fields towards those cannon.
    When I was 14, I had an uncle in the Army in Germany. He flew me over for 5 weeks and then took me and his family all around Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and southern Germany. We camped, it rained, but I had a great time. Saw all kinds of stuff. But one of the places that has stuck with me all these years was a cemetery of American dead, must have been in Belgium. Place was very pretty, but very quiet, with long long rows of white crosses. Just lines and lines of them.
    The other place was one of the concentration camps. That was the most eerie place I have ever been. Long grass covered mounds. No bird sounds at all. Total silence. And when the tour guide wanted everyone to file into this room, I would not go. I felt like I couldn't go. It was just a green room with shower heads all around. Could not wait to get through with that tour!! Didn't read Ann Frank until the next year.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Saratoga is another place on my list to visit. I mean I've been to the area, just never had the chance to walk the field.

      I don't blame you for not going into that room. Not at all.

      Delete
  13. Started walking the battlefields when I was 9. Dad was an Army history buff/nut. He took us and we toured every Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefield we could reach while living in Virginia, Kansas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Alabama, Rhode Island. The last field I walked was Gloucester Hill with a retired colonel who put us right there in the field as we walked the hills and valleys. The Army is big on battlefield walks. The navy, not so much.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well I can understand that. On the gripping hand, the Air Force at times acts like history began in 1947. When they even bother to acknowledge tradition and history.

      Delete
  14. the Hurtgenwald, especially the Kall river gorge area between Kommerscheid and Schmidt is especially eerie during a wet November night. I stayed up all night walking with a small light and a map. Eerie does not even begin to describe it. The Nazi rally grounds in Nurnberg were creepy as well.

    ReplyDelete

Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)