David B.




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November 10, 2008

They Remembered, But We Forgot, the Meaning of Armistice Day


On a shelf sits a spent 90-year-old artillery shell casing, layered thick with nine decades of tarnish. Across the top, the date “December 17, 1918” is painstakingly etched into the surface of the brass, each digit comprised of dozens of tiny indentations. Below this, a crudely-rendered American eagle, frozen in mid-flight, and at the bottom the inscription “From Cambrai” in art deco lettering. On the shell’s base, the name of its creator: H. Görge Allendorf, followed by his address in Germany.


December 17, 1918 was Mary Lorene Detwiler’s 21st birthday. The shell was a painstakingly made gift, crafted over the course of dozens of hours in a hospital bed by a badly-wounded German prisoner of war, who had created the lettering and designs by tapping a single nail into the brass with the heel of his boot. The date of its presentation was one month and six days following “Armistice Day,” the official conclusion of “the war to end all wars.” Despite divergent backgrounds – she, a small-town orphan from western Michigan; he, a young soldier from Bavaria – fate had placed both giver and recipient in the same desolate, decimated, bomb-cratered corner of northern France, and provided each with a similar vantage point upon the single most barbarous, murderous spectacle the human inclination towards warfare had wrought to date.


In the Red Cross hospital in Etre-Etats, Mary Detwiler and her fellow nurses tended to thousands of maimed and dying men – British, French, German, American – during the early winter of 1918. The war had officially been over for more than a month, but for these men – blinded, gassed, missing limbs or otherwise mutilated by mechanized carnage, the “lucky” ones who had managed to evade death – the consequences were likely to linger forever. Many who had survived past the signing of the Armistice would nonetheless succumb in the subsequent months, surrendering to gangrene or slowly suffocating thanks to the after-effects of mustard or chlorine gas. A nurse like Mary Detwiler would spend the entirety of her day racing from one of her hundreds of patients to another, frantically and futilely trying to mitigate the suffering of a legion of shattered men. A patient like Görge Allendorf would have little to do beyond lie in his bed, watch and listen as others died around him.


Allendorf would have been only one of hundreds of patients under Detwiler’s care, and would likely have only received a tiny fraction of her attention. Nonetheless, something moved this wounded German to craft a gift for her, using the only tools and materials at his disposal, and moreover, to emblazon it with an image representative of one of the nations that had just defeated his own. Similarly, something moved Detwiler enough to not only accept this gift, but to bring it back to America and safeguard it for the remaining 70 years of her life.


Though the two would never meet again, this simple transaction of a small token of appreciation formalized a relationship between two individuals who had until then been relegated into opposing camps by the political and military realities of the time, a relationship based upon the shared experience of living amidst the tragic aftereffects of a horrifying war. Amidst the blood, screams, filth and bitter cold, each came to a recognition of the other’s humanity, perhaps taking to heart the implicit promise of the Armistice that this indeed had been the “war to end all wars,” and that their sacrifices and those of their millions of compatriots hadn’t been in vain. The establishment of Armistice Day as a formal international holiday seemed to solidify the promise that this sacrifice wouldn’t be forgotten.


In the United States, the forgetting was all too convenient; Armistice Day became Veterans Day, as it became evident that it would be impossible to separately commemorate the dead of each of the many wars that followed. Now, as Veterans Day is celebrated with small-town parades and four-minute mentions on the evening news 90 years since the original Armistice was signed, the U.S. remains embroiled in two wars on foreign soil, with no evident end in sight, proving that a lesson concerning shared humanity learned by two people in a field hospital in France nearly a century ago still eludes the “leaders” who continue to urge young men and women blithely towards their senseless slaughter.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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