"The Great War of 1914 to 1918 is increasingly regarded as the great turning point of all modern history, bringing an end to the century of peace that followed the Napoleonic era and ushering in the century of wars and revolutions. Its scope, violence, and total nature were unprecedented; its consequences incalculable."
Hansen W. Baldwin. World War I. An Outline History. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
PERSONALLY I think that my sharpest impression of war as a whole came to me, not along the postes de secours or under the guns at all, but at the station place, in the once obscure little town of Poperinghe, on April 23, 1915.
That, it will be remembered, was a fateful day. At five o'clock
in the afternoon before (everybody was perfectly specific about
the hour), there had begun the great movement now known as the
Second Battle of Ypres (or of the Yser). The assault had begun
with the terrifying surprise of poison-gas; the gas was followed
by artillery attacks of a ferocity hitherto unequalled; Ypres
had been wiped out in a few hours; the Germans had crossed the
Yser. Thus the French and English lines, which were joined, had
been abruptly pushed back over a long front. That these were anxious
hours for the Allies, Sir John French's report of June 15, 1915,
indicates very plainly, I think. But they were far from being
idle hours. To-day the whole back country, which for weeks had
swarmed with soldiers, was up. For miles around, Allied reserves
had been called up from camp or billet; and now they were rushing
forward to stiffen the wavering lines and stem the threatening
thrust for the coast.
At three o'clock on this afternoon, I stood in the rue d'Ypres, before the railway station in Poperinghe, and watched the new army of England go up. Thousands and thousands, foot and horse, supply and artillery, gun, caisson, wagon, and lorry, the English were going up. All afternoon long, in an unending stream, they tramped and rolled up the Flemish highroad, and wheeling just before me, dipped and disappeared down a side street toward "out there." Beautifully equipped and physically attractive ---the useless cavalry especially!--- sun-tanned and confident, all ready, I am sure, to die without a whimper, they were a most likely and impressive-looking lot. And I suppose that they could have had little more idea of what they were going into than you and I have of the geography of the nether regions.
This was on my left --- the English going up. And on my right,
the two streams actually touching and mingling, the English were
coming back. They did not come as they went, however. They came
on their backs, very still and remote; and all that you were likely
to see of them now was their muddy boots at the ambulance flap.
Service Sanitaire as we were, I think Section One never saw, before or since, such a conglomeration of wounded as we saw that day at Poperinghe. Here was the railhead and the base; here for the moment were the Red Cross and Royal Army Medical Corps units shelled out of Ypres; here was the nervous centre of all that swarming and sweating back-of-the-front. And here, hour after hour, into and through the night, the slow-moving wagons, English, French, and American, rolling on one another's heels, brought back the bloody harvest.
The English, so returning to Poperinghe gare, were very well cared for. By the station wicket a large squad of English stretcher-bearers, directed, I believe, by a colonel of the line, was unceasingly and expertly busy. Behind. the wicket lay the waiting English train, steam up for Boulogne, enormously long and perfectly sumptuous; a, super-train, a hospital Pullman, all swinging white beds and shining nickel. The French, alas, were less lucky that day. Doubtless the unimagined flood of wounded had swamped the generally excellent service; for the moment, at least, there was not only no super-train for the French, there was no train. As for the bunks of the station warehouses, the hôpital d'évacuation, they were, of course, long since exhausted. Thus it was that wounded tirailleurs and Zouaves and black men from Africa set down from ambulances, staggered unattended up the station platform, sat and lay anyhow about the concrete and the sand --- no flesh-wounded hoppers these, but hard-punished men, not a few of them struck, it was only too manifest, in the seat of their lives. This was a bloody disarray which I never saw elsewhere, and hope never to see again. Here, indeed, there was moaning to be heard, with the hard gasp and hopeless coughing of the asphyxiés. And still, behind this heavy ambulance, rolled another and another and another.
On my left was the cannon fodder going up; on my right was the cannon fodder coming back. The whole mechanics of war at a stroke, you might have said; these two streams being really one, these men the same men, only at slightly different stages of their experience.
Henry Sydnor Harrison, in History of the American Field Service in France. Boston and New York. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920
"He never talked about the war, and then suddenly one day, we were in his study when something triggered it," recalls his stepdaughter, Allelu Kurten. "He turned and started to tell me about it, and he made it live --- the trenches, the mud, the dirt, the stupidity of it. It was so horrendous that I remember it to this day. The sheer horror of it came to me, the death of all these young people, the senseless death. He had been a volunteer in the ambulance corps prior to U.S. entry into the war. I think the memory of taking bodies of the wounded and the dying off the battlefields of that war never left him.
Ernest Kolowrat. Hotchkiss. A Chronicle of an American School. New Amsterdam Press, 1992