Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Eric Margolis (syndicated columnist, foreign correspondent/foreign affairs expert and frequent guest--alongside U of T's Janice Stein--on the CBC news during the recent war on Iraq) recently wrote an excellent column on French valiance. It's too bad that those who most need to read it will never lay eyes upon it.

In an effort to disseminate what Margolis so adeptly illustrates in that column, I am posting the column here:

Copyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2003
May 1, 2003

VERDUN, France - Something keeps drawing me back to this most evil and sinister battlefield on earth, a mere 18 km (10.8 miles) by 10 km (6 miles), where during ten hellish months of 1916 1.4 million French and German soldiers were killed or gravely wounded.

Each year it is my custom to greet spring in France's exquisite countryside, exploring battlefields and forts of the two world wars. But this, my sixth journey to Verdun, holds particular personal meaning.

Decades of travel, covering many wars, reading the history of man's folly have made me a cosmopolitan who detests borders and earnestly believes mankind's worst evils are nationalism and religious fanaticism. Still, there are four countries that I hold particularly dear and to whom I feel respectful (as opposed to hormonal) patriotism, respect, and loyalty - Canada, France, Switzerland, the United States (in alphabetical, not emotional order), and reserve a special place for Pakistan.

Quixotic as it may sound, while at Verdun, I apologized as a US Army veteran to France's fallen soldiers for the slander and disgraceful lies hurled at their memory by American know-nothings and pro- Israel neo-con pundits who poured venom on the French for not agreeing to President George Bush's imperial oil war against Iraq.

`Defeat monkeys'….`surrender specialists'…..`never won a war'…`always saved by Americans'…`in war, like an accordion, useless and noisy..' `cowards' …were hurled at France by American commentators. The internet filled with anti-French jokes and lists of French military defeats.

I invite all those flag waving, fire-breathing American couch patriots who called French cowards to visit Verdun. The air here still stinks of death; only deformed, stunted bushes grow on its poisoned soil. In the towering gray stone Ossuary repose bone pieces of 135,000 men.

In 1916, the Germans sought a decisive battle on the strategic heights above Verdun, where they planned to bleed France's army to death with their massed artillery. On the first day of battle alone, French positions were inundated by one million heavy shells. The titanic bombardment went on for ten months, explosives against human flesh. Trenches and dugouts were pulverized. Entire French regiments were destroyed in hours.

The French commander, Gen. Nivelle, ordered his 2nd Army defending Verdun: `No surrender; no retreat, not even an inch: die where you stand.' And so they did.

On 4-5 June, the Germans poured 100,000 poison gas shells - chlorine, phosgene, and cyanide - onto only 4 kms of French-held front - then launched divisional assaults against the position. French soldiers had no gasmasks. Thousands died in hideous agony, or were blinded. Yet they somehow held.

Shells churned the battlefield into a gigantic quagmire of mud, rotting corpses, body parts, dead horses, overhung by a toxic miasma of chlorine and mustard gas. Troops went days without food; they drank from shell craters filled with bodies, and often drowned in them. German flamethrowers inflicted frightful casualties. Shells rained down round the clock. Every tiny elevation, every fort, became a little Thermopylae.

At the height of the German attack on Fort Vaux, over 2,000 heavy shells an hour, some 405mm 1,000 kg monsters, were exploding each on its roof and glacis. When we today talk about soldier's combat stress, think of the heroic garrison of Vaux, burned, gassed, poisoned by toxic smoke, dying of thirst, fearing they would be buried alive at any moment, yet fighting on. The French lost 100,000 casualties trying to retake another fort, Douaumont.

Three-quarters of the French Army, an and entire generation of France's men, passed through the inferno of Verdun. Units stayed in line until they had lost 60% casualties. Every town and village in France bears a war memorial with names of its sons fallen at Verdun. The heights above the Meuse River became France's Calvary; `They shall not pass' the army's and nation's credo.

The attacking Germans fought, as always, like lions, losing 400,000 dead. They almost broke through, but were finally held at the last line of French defenses, at fearsome sacrifice. French soldiers fought like tigers, with their legendary fury and élan: over 430,000 died at Verdun; 800,000 were gassed or crippled for life. Bones are still unearthed here today, 87 years later; French metro's and busses only recently ended reserved seating for `mutilated war veterans.' After the war, there were not enough young Frenchmen to farm the fields or produce children.

In the end, the French held Verdun. In this battle alone, France lost almost 1.5 times total US losses in all of World War II, and 20% of its nearly 2 million dead from 1914-1918.

To the northwest of here is Sedan. In May, 1940, the racing German XIX Panzer Corps negotiated the dense Ardennes Forest and fought across the Meuse, dividing, then shattering the French Army. Italy attacked in the south.

The French did not simply surrender, as some Americans claim. Their army fought valiantly, but was overwhelmed and torn apart by German's high-tech military machine, just as Iraq's outdated forces were recently obliterated by high-tech US forces.

The French government wanted to fight on from Brittany, but there were no army divisions left intact. France lost 210,000 dead in 1940 fighting Germany and Italy; America lost 292,000 men during the entire war. Let's keep the historical record accurate.

You know, it's so easy for us North Americans to criticize others' reluctance to go to war. There has NEVER been a major war fought on North American soil.

And I hope there never will be.

Here or anywhere else, for that matter.

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