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“Over There”

By November 10, 2017 5 Comments

Johnnie, get your gun

Get your gun, get your gun

Take it on the run

On the run, on the run

Hear them calling, you and me

Every son of liberty

Hurry right away

No delay, go today

Make your daddy glad

To have had such a lad

Tell your sweetheart not to pine

To be proud her boy’s in line.

Some may believe that standing, hand over heart, for “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a profoundly patriotic gesture, but as a measure of homage to homeland it out-and-out pales in comparison to the giddy excesses America–and the world–took when going off to war a hundred years ago.

A weathered American diplomat named Hugh Gibson, posted to Belgium in 1914, took note of the frenzy all around him, even though the early rumblings of a real world war were still an ocean and more away from the U.S. of A. Just ten days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he wrote in his journal:  “Well, the roof has fallen in. War was declared this afternoon in Austria.” And then this: “The town is seething with excitement.”

It’s almost unimaginable today, an entire nation salivating over the glorious possibilities of warfare. “Everybody seems to realize how near they are to the big stage,” Gibson writes.

The horrors of trench warfare didn’t appear in anyone’s crystal ball.  No one prophesied that “the big stage” would soon be bloodied into a killing field.

Just a few days later, Gibson documents the patriotic uproar unfurling all around him:

This afternoon I went around to the Rue Ducale to take a look at the French Legation. The tricolor was flying in the fresh breeze, and there was a big crowd outside cheering itself hoarse. It was made up of men who were called to the colors and were waiting to enroll themselves    and get instructions as to where they should report for duty. The air was electric, and every now and then the military band struck up the Marseillaise and the crowd instantly became happily delirious. Some of them had been standing in the sun for hours waiting to get in and    get their orders, but they were just as keenly responsive to the music and the mood of the crowd as anybody.

All that hoopla would eventually die a foul and muddied death, Belgium a battlefield, France an unimaginable nether world. More than a million Brits would die, a million and a half French; two and one-half million Germans. This country didn’t get in until 1917, a century ago; but 117 thousand Doughboys would never return. Many of those who did were scarred.

The world was a wholly different place back then as the men and women looked toward war; we were a different people. Downton Abbey wouldn’t be a television series without World War I, many of its crucial conflicts created in the wake of a war that didn’t end all wars, and barely stumbled to its own.

A century later it’s impossible to imagine the level of blind patriotism Gibson records in his journal: “The air was electric, and every now and then the military band struck up the Marseillaise and the crowd instantly became happily delirious.” Could that happen anymore, anywhere in America? Would we all join together to sing the first verse of “Over There”?

Somewhere in France there’s a cross in a cemetery bearing the name of my own great uncle, a young enlistee named Edgar Hartman, who looks like just a boy. Was that war worth his life?

It’s difficult for any of us to answer that question in a fashion that’s “happily delirious.”

Tomorrow is a day to remember those who gave the supreme sacrifice, but something in all of us died a century ago in that Great War.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • John Tiemstra says:

    My great-uncle Albert Bell died in the closing days of the war in Belgium. Almost everyone of European ancestry has a relative who died in WWI. It’s good to remember the impact it had on our families.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    “Im Westen nichts Neues” The church needs to keep before the world always the horror and cost of war. No one wins. Everyone loses. Jesus shows a better way – the way of the cross. Suffering love. The church needs to celebrate that, not slaughter of enemies. We are called to make that witness to the world.

  • Thanks, Jim. Helpful reflections, historically grounded!

  • Thomas Boogaart says:


    I always look forward to your reflections. Thanks for all your contributions to Perspective.

  • Marge Vander Wagen says:

    A voice of reason that needs to be heard. Thank you.

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