April 13 – Kilroy Was There

Today’s factismal: A wartime “casualty” is any soldier who is killed or wounded so badly that he can’t fight anymore.

Scientists are notorious for using words differently than other people do (“theory” anyone?) but they are hardly the only group to do so. For example, the word “casualty” means something different to a military strategist than it does to a civilian. Most non-military folks think of “casualties” as meaning that the soldier was killed but military strategists include people who are severely wounded as casualties. That’s because, like the killed, they are no longer able to fight and thus are no longer part of the battle. Perhaps no single event explains this better than the Battle of Somme. Over the course of a three-month long battle, more than one million soldiers became casualties. On the first day of fighting, some 70,000 soldiers were killed or severely wounded; fortunately, the original fierce fighting soon died back into slow, tedious, deadly trench warfare in which thousands of men would die to advance the line of battle by just a few feet.

Obviously, no soldier could stand that sort of toll for long. Instead of moving to the front and staying there, the soldiers were rotated in and out on a semi-regular schedule. If all went well (and it never did), a soldier would fight for four days at the front before falling back to provide support for four more days then wait a week “in reserve” and finally spend two weeks resting “behind the lines” before grouping at staging areas and  heading back to the front. Because a soldier was just as much a target behind the lines as he was on the front, the Allies frequently took advantage of France’s limestone-rich ground by moving the staging areas into the huge underground caverns surrounding the battlefields.

Turkish graffiti on the Acropolis (My camera)

Turkish graffiti on the Acropolis
(My camera)

Like all soldiers from the time of Troy to now, the soldiers in World War I spent their spare time behind the lines in the usual soldierly pursuits: swapping lies, reminiscing about home, and avoiding the NCOs. And, like all soldiers from the time of Troy to now, the soldiers committed a large amount of those pursuits to immortality via graffiti. With pencils, charcoal, and sharp sticks, they drew and carved memorials and pithy verses into the walls of the caves. If the graffiti had been exposed to the elements, then much of what had been done would have vanished. But the caves were sealed up following the war and are only now being reopened and explored, providing archeologists and historians with an amazing first-hand account of what life was like for a soldier during the War to End All Wars.

But the graffiti is only one source of information about the era. Another is the direct words of the soldiers as captured in their diaries. And that’s where you come in! Historians need your help in reading and tagging more than one and a half million pages taken from diaries kept by ordinary soldiers during World War I. You’ll be among the first to read about the heartbreak and heartbreaking courage that these gallant young men displayed. If you’d like to learn more about the project, then head over to:

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