Soldier’s Story Shows Tragedy of ‘Great War’
NIEUWKERKE, Belgium (AP) — In a neatly clipped corner of the Westhof Farm Cemetery, an Australian family huddled around the grave of Pvt. Andrew Bayne. One century after the start of World War I, the family found closure in homage to a forebear who had traveled half the world to meet his death, his stomach ripped open by an exploding shell, in the horrors of Flanders Fields.
Bayne left his wife, Katie, with four young children in Brisbane and a prescient letter of regret: “What a dammed fool I was to ever have enlisted.”
Bayne’s remains lie alongside other Commonwealth victims and a handful of German dead, the rows of pristine white tombstones stretching over rich, undulating pastures. Belgium and France are still scarred by over 1,000 graveyards, countless bomb craters, rusting gas shells, bunkers and trenches that tore apart the Western Front for four years.
The front line of death and destruction burned through the Alps, Central Europe, the Balkans and Russia, spilling into present-day Turkey and reaching beyond to the Middle East and as far as China. It claimed some 14 million lives – 5 million civilians and 9 million soldiers, sailors and airmen from 28 countries, from India to South Africa to the United States. The 1914-18 conflict was so unprecedented in its scope and savagery that it became known simply as “The Great War.” At least 7 million troops were left permanently disabled and families across the globe, much like Bayne’s, were wrecked.
Despite the vows of “never again” across a shell-shocked world, the outcome of the conflict only sowed the bitter seeds that led to World War II and more slaughter. And the nationalist tensions that set off the killing never really died, most recently resurfacing in Ukraine and Russia.
For Kaylene Biggs, misty-eyed after finally facing the grave of her great-grandfather in the small cemetery, the war’s far-reaching legacy makes remembrance all the more important. “It isn’t until you do visit the battlefields that you realize the huge amount of loss and sacrifice.”
“Now, it seems so peaceful,” she said amid the twitter of birds and the faraway galloping of a horse.
The early summer of 1914 seemed just as tranquil to most Europeans. By that time, the Bayne family had already been in Australia for two years, hoping to build a richer life after toiling for meager rewards on a Scottish farm.
Little did they know that Europe would not let them go so easily.
The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires had often clashed over borders in the restive Balkans, but somehow diplomats had muddled through without plunging the world into war. Little prepared Europe for June 28, 1914, when a gunshot from Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip killed Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
So shocking was the murder, so constricting its consequences, that no diplomacy could stop the slow wheels of intricate alliances and oblique agreements that pulled the continent into full war by Aug. 4.
Adding to the combustible mix was the perception among several great powers that Germany was bent on military expansion to boost its standing as second to none in Europe. An arms race had been building for several years. In Berlin, there was an almost claustrophobic feeling of encirclement.
“You get something in 1914 like a perfect storm,” said historian Margaret MacMillan, of Oxford University. “So in those five weeks, Europe instead of pulling back from the brink, puts itself toward the brink. And the results are catastrophic. And you look at it, and you think, `You don’t have to be doing this.'”
When the pieces of the puzzle finally fell into place that August, the Entente Powers including Britain, France and Russia faced the Central Powers of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires.
Germany opened the Western Front with a massive attack through Luxembourg and Belgium, hoping to knock out France before Russia had a chance to mobilize in the east. It was hoping to count victory in weeks, not years. But Belgium was tougher to get through than expected, and French and British troops stopped the German onslaught at the Marne River northeast of Paris.
“At the beginning, people thought it was a war worth fighting,” MacMillan said. “They all had good reason to fight. They didn’t, most of them, foresee what the war would turn into.”
The war quickly became a deadly stalemate the likes of which had never been seen. Over the next three years, each side attempted a series of massive offensives that failed to break the deadlock but caused horrific carnage – up to 1 million dead in the French Battle of the Somme alone. The Gallipoli campaign in Turkey was so ghastly it turned into a seminal event for Australian and New Zealand nationhood.
Sometimes tens of thousands would die in a single day, Germans and Austro-Hungarians as swiftly as British and French. Artillery was relentless. Toxic gas was introduced in modern warfare with devastating effect. The poison wafted across trenches, killing and maiming whoever took a breath. Because of it, the need for fresh manpower was enormous – and the reach of the British Empire was global. One million Indian troops alone served overseas under British command. A New Zealand memorial in Flanders simply says “From the uttermost ends of the earth.”
It was only a matter of time before the war turned up at Andrew Bayne’s doorstep in Brisbane.
“THEY HAVE GOT ME”
Bayne was hardly gung-ho about the war. What turned things around, Biggs said, was that “one day in the street, he was handed a white feather,” at the time a universal sign for cowardice. “So he went and joined up.” His dreams of setting up a farm were replaced with the horrors of Europe: the trenches, the mud, the gas, the booming artillery.
He enlisted in June 1916, left Australia four months later – and arrived in France from England in March of the following year, just one indication of the pace of war a century ago.
Bayne was not the only family member to go. In a sign of how global the war could be, his brother John enlisted in the Australian Light Horse, fought on Gallipoli in Turkey and in Beersheba in current-day Israel. Another brother, Adam, joined the Canadian forces and went to fight in France; a third, Bill, fought with the British. They all survived.
Family archives showed that Andrew Bayne fought at Bullecourt in northern France, where two battles cost Australia 10,000 casualties and hardly moved the front line. Bullecourt villagers coming back said there was no way of knowing where their houses had once been. Such devastation was par for the course during the years of stalemate.
Bayne, like so many millions of soldiers, long remained hopeful as the war stretched into its fourth year. The Germans, he wrote home, “are about starved out and they can’t last much longer.” He added, “Cheer up. I will be with you yet.”
On Aug. 19, 1917, a German shell burst close to him as he was on the Ypres front holding the line close to Messines Ridge, little more than a molehill but a killer of thousands on both sides. The pain and agony were recorded matter-of-factly in a witness report: “The wounds were left arm, right of face and stomach – the latter a bad one.”
Bayne could still call for a stretcher and, before losing consciousness, uttered: “They have got me.” He died soon afterward at age 32.
Had he held out longer, he might have benefited by the U.S. entry into the war.
“EUROPE’S WAR,” AMERICA’S BREAKTHROUGH
For most Americans, it began as “Europe’s war.” Many German, Scandinavian and Irish immigrants saw no reason to help the British and pacifism was all the rage in a country still traumatized by its own Civil War. A 1915 hit song in America carried the name: “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier.”
But Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine attacks undermined neutrality. In 1915, a German submarine sank the British liner Lusitania, killing 128 Americans. President Woodrow Wilson responded that America was “too proud to fight” but demanded Germany halt attacks on passenger ships. Even modest steps to build up the U.S. Navy and an Army Reserve met strong public opposition.
Three things tipped the scales: somewhat overdramatized reports of German atrocities in Belgium and elsewhere; Germany’s decision in January 1917 to resume unrestricted submarine warfare; and a clumsy, ill-timed overture by the Germans to Mexico.
On April 2, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany to make the world “safe for democracy.” U.S. troops did not arrive in strength in Europe until the following year.
They found themselves in the middle of the end game.
Russian Czar Nicholas II was forced out and the new Bolshevik government under Vladimir Lenin signed a peace treaty on March 3, 1918, allowing Germany to center all of its remaining energy on the Western Front. Germans advanced to the point of bringing Paris into artillery range but allied counterattacks and the arrival of up to 2.1 million American soldiers tipped the balance for good.
“They were essential in turning the tide,” said Belgian military historian Luc De Vos of Leuven University. “There was a real deadlock in the war” and the other combatants were exhausted, he said. “The 2 million Americans – young, enthusiastic troops – they attacked and they were everywhere on the front.”
More than 116,500 American service members were killed and some U.S. soldiers now lie buried in the huge swath of Flanders fields where Bayne was also laid to rest.
With German forces in retreat, a revolutionary government seized power in Berlin and stopped fighting on Nov. 11, 1918. The Versailles peace treaty sealed Germany’s defeat the following June 28, five years to the day after the Sarajevo shooting set off the war.
The Great War left the United States at the dawn of what would become known as the American century. In Europe and beyond, the empires that launched the conflict – Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans and Russia – all collapsed. The war allowed Lenin to establish the Soviet Union. In Germany, defeat paved the way for the rise of Adolf Hitler.
At a personal level, the horrors of modern warfare and the massive loss of life produced the “Lost Generation,” with millions left cynical, rootless and disillusioned by carnage and social upheaval. In literature, this generation included greats like Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot and Erich Maria Remarque. It also affected millions of families around the world.
Bayne’s wife Katie long refused to believe that he had died, since she apparently received a letter dated after his death. Biggs said her great grandmother went to meet every ship bringing soldiers home into Brisbane.
“My grandmother could remember one particular time being with her mother, chasing after a man who had just got off a returning warship, who she thought was Andrew,” she said.
“They never had a funeral for him,” Biggs added. “I cannot fathom the hurt.”
For the rest of her life – over half a century – she would carry with her the last letter Andrew wrote, Biggs said.
Without Andrew, Katie Bayne struggled and scraped together money to take the children back to Scotland in 1920. Once there, life seemed even bleaker. She brought the family back to Australia three years later.
Amid the luxuries of the 21st century, her Australian descendants still consider remembrance a necessity.
THE LAST POST
Like the hundreds of thousands expected to come to Europe from across the world over the next four years, the Baynes’ pilgrimage has been multi-generational. Kaylene and her husband Peter also brought their three children.
“His children and his wife weren’t able to come,” said Kaylene’s daughter Jaleesa, 18. “They, in a sense, didn’t get closure but we are able to come here and to see what they always wanted to see.”
From Gallipoli to Sarajevo to Verdun and Flanders Fields, countless memorials and cemeteries stand in immaculate condition to take in crowds and host leaders from all sides for commemorations. Many major ceremonies uniting politicians, royalty and families from across the globe are set for early August.
For Biggs and her family, a trip across the globe to a simple grave in a small cemetery has meant the world.
“With all this sadness, I am so thankful that he actually does have a grave, somewhere for his descendants to go to pay their respects,” she said. “I feel comforted that his sacrifice has not been forgotten through time.”
A few miles from Bayne’s grave is Ypres, site of four war battles and home to the Menin Gate with its 54,000-plus names inscribed to the missing, never found in the fields of Flanders. Every evening at 8 p.m., the local fire brigade plays the Last Post in an eerily solemn tribute that draws increasing numbers of tourists as the centenary draws near.
The contrast of peace and war amid the memorials and cemeteries could not be bigger for Jaleesa.
“You just cannot imagine that only 100 years ago, it was the middle of hell,” she said. “You’ve seen the movies. You’ve read the books and stuff, but it is still incomprehensible.
“Now, it is a memorial to them. It is so peaceful.”