Our History & Our Heritage by Bill Kiefer

Perhaps it is the time of year. In the very recent past I dedicated my column to the meaning behind, and the history of, Memorial Day as we commemorate it. On the heels of that meaningful Holiday came the 77th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy which occurred on June 6, 1944. This past weekend had a full load of movies available to watch commemorating the event.

It just happens that my reading practice is to consume several books at a time, going back and forth among them as the mood strikes. This weekend found me with two historical tomes: Britain at Bay by Alan Allport, which focuses on the events occurring in the life of the British in the middle 1930’s leading up to the War, and the period when the United Kingdom and its commonwealth states stood alone against the German-Italian-Japanese axis prior to June 22, 1941. As a companion to that work, I am reading The Gathering Storm which covers the same time period, and which was written in 1947 by Winston Churchill as part of his six volume work on the War, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953..

Churchill was a primary governmental and military figure in both World Wars. By 1947, he had come to the conclusion that like many prior and lengthy European Wars, they were really one war, lasting thirty years in two phases 1914–1919 and 1939-1945 interrupted by a twenty year truce. In that regard, to him the period of 1914-1945 was akin to the Thirty Year War of 1618-1648, or even the One Hundred Year War of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Those conflicts featured years of fighting followed by years of truce, and then years of fighting again.

It has frequently been said that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This pithy statement is often attributed to the 18th century Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke. That attribution may be incorrect and it may be a corruption of a statement by John Stuart Mill, a 19th century British Parliamentarian and philosopher. But the statement itself, as well as the writings of Churchill and Allport, and others emphasize that ultimately D-Day was necessary because when faced with evil in the period 1932-1939, good men could only do nothing.

The War of 1914-1919, that which begat us Decoration Day and Armistice Day, was at its conclusion considered so awful, so terrifying as to be “The war to end all wars.” It seemed that way to Americans, keeping in mind that as a populace we did not want to be in the war. Woodrow Wilson narrowly won a second term in 1916 while campaigning on the basis that he had kept us out of the war and would continue to do so. He misled the voters. Shortly after his inauguration, in April 1917 he asked Congress for a declaration of War against Germany and its allies.

The US mobilized over 4,000,000 men. As a result of our engagement we suffered 116,000 deaths and 204,000 wounded. To the country these seemed to be horrendous figures and they were, considering that they resulted from less than a year of actual fighting and participation in only two major battles. But by comparison to the other combatants our losses were paltry. The other twelve allied countries mobilized 38,000,000 men and suffered 5,000,000 dead, over 12,500,000 wounded and over 4,000,000 missing. Germany and its three allies put 23,000,000 men into action of which 3,400,000 were killed, 8.400,000 wounded and 3.600,000 missing. Added to these losses it is estimated that nearly 10,000,000 civilians also died.

When the war commenced the population of Germany was around 70,000,000, its chief ally Austria – Hungary had a population of around 50,000,000. At the same time France’s population was 40,000,000 and that of the United Kingdom was around 42,000,000. Russia an ally into 1917 had a population of 165,000,000. Our population was 105,000,000. It is easy to conceive that apart from Russia which suffered a nearly 75% casualty rate, England and France were proportionately hardest hit among the allies. Militarily, France was reduced to a second class power by the war. In England, much of the aristocracy, which provided the backbone of the officer corps was gone. Also much of the middle class was gone.

The Peace treaty which started from Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points, gave birth to the League of Nations, which America refused to join. It dismembered much of Germany and its chief ally Austria Hungary; removed the monarchies of both combatants; saddled them with unpayable war debts and imposed restrictions on German rearmament. Although he couldn’t convince us to join the League, Wilson did win the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

When Hitler filled the German political vacuum, he began to re-arm, and to forcefully reclaim former German territories, all of which were violations of the Peace Treaty, the only redress was to the League of Nations which had no peacekeeping arm. France was too weak to stand in Germany’s way on her own. She had to have the support of England which was a member of the League. And as a certain Prince of Denmark created by Shakespeare would say “Aye there’s the rub.” At this juncture England saw itself as a nation of shop keepers, factory workers, and bank clerks. While its Navy was strong its Army was not. It was spread thin maintaining order in its world wide empire, which to a great extent insulated the United Kingdom from many of the worst effects of the Great Depression. 

Some historians liken the British attitude as to seeing themselves as Hobbit folk living in Tolkien’s Shire. When Hitler retook the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, annexed Austria, obtained Alsace Lorraine, good men stood by and did nothing. Only when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 did they finally act. By then Germany had rearmed to the extent that it took only nine months for its Armies to capture almost all of Western Europe. Beginning with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 and continuing until driving the last Brits, Scots and French into the channel at Dunkirk on May 26, 1940 only nine months elapsed. From then until June 22, 1941 Great Britain and its Commonwealth states fought on alone against Germany, Italy and Japan. The June date is when the Germans invaded Russia. We joined in after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

However, in Western Europe the Germans had four years to fortify the occupied countries of France, the Low Countries, Norway and Italy from invasion. Those fortifications were so strong that it took the Americans and the Brits years to develop the manpower, equipment, ships and planes to enable the successful landings in Normandy in June of 1944.

Approximately 4,400 allied troops were killed in the D-Day landings, 2,500 of whom were Americans, the balance being largely British and Canadian. I have not found a figure of how many soldiers and sailors from Hancock County were killed on D-Day. However, the state lists that 111 men of our County died in service during the war. This fact was reinforced by a press release yesterday that the remains of PFC John Sitarz of Weirton had been identified. He died on November 2, 1944, in the Hurtgen Forest along the German-Belgian border. The battle for the forest lasted about three months, cost the US 33,000 casualties and ended when the Germans commenced their winter offensive on December 16, 1944, known to us as Battle of the Bulge, and to them as Wacht am Rhein or in English: The Watch on the Rhine. May God bless PFC Sitarz and all the other men of our county, state and country who made the ultimate sacrifice.