What Star Wars Has to Do With the Battle of Passchendaele and Other Things

1. I learnt this one from the film Passchendaele (Canadian film, with the mountie from Due South as a troubled soldier from the front. Tacky, romantic storyline, but one of the best WWI battle scenes I’ve seen…I haven’t seen many): remember the shiny, white folk in the Star Wars films? One of them catches his helmet on the door frame in the most iconic scene of episode IV…remember now? You may also recognise the term “stormtrooper” as the English word for the Nazi SA men, or “Sturmabteilung”. Well, the term stormtrooper actually comes from the battle of Passchendaele, the notoriously muddy battle of the First World War in Ypres in 1917. So muddy, that men, horses, guns etc got stuck and even drowned in the mud. The men who fought here got labelled as storm troopers.

I found this colour image online, but something tells me it’s too colourful for a picture of mud. If you were marching and a man fell in the mud in front of you, you were not allowed to stop and help pull him out, even though many men drowned in this way. Many other men drowned when they were wounded in shell holes that filled with rain water.

2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy evolved from experiences in both World Wars.

 

Tolkien served in the First World War, and was one of many to be devastated by the deaths of all his friends. He was also one of many to be affected by trenchfoot – where the feet of men who trudged around in waterlogged trenches every day began to rot and parts would drop off – and by trench fever – an illness passed on from lice which were passed from soldier to solider through their uniforms.

Below is an image of Australian soldiers carrying comrades suffering from trenchfoot:

His son also served in the Second World War, and both his and his son’s experiences influenced his books. The idea of the Orcs, the specially created soldiers that fight battles on a grand scale, can be seen from the modern warfare that developed in the First World War. Machine guns, tanks, poison gas and flamethrowers all made their name in this war, and took many by surprised. It was no longer pure guerilla warfare – men and generals armed with simple rifles running from bush to bush to face man on man combat – but vast battles, planned and ordered by generals, against weapons of mass destruction and chemical warfare.

3. Darth Vader’s mask has German helmet and gas mask connotations…

Ralph McQuarrie (RIP: March 5, 2012), the artist for Star Wars, was told by George Lucas that he wanted a sort of Samurai figure for Darth Vader. So he drew someone who appeared menacing and powerful, and who could breathe in all atmospheres. When it came to making the costume, it was Brian Muir who modelled Vadar’s headgear on a German World War II helmet and gas mask.

Gas masks were invented in the First World War. The Germans’ came first:

This picture from 1918 shows a German with a gas  mask that looks pretty much the same as the masks you see being used 20 years later in WWII. Note how even the horses too have gasmasks (horses were a major form of transport in the First World War, and many from farms all around Britain were used in the war. The loss of these horses was on such a grand scale during the war that it was a major contribution to the phasing out of horses as farm labourers – there just weren’t enough of them about after the war. Oddly enough, Germany employed more horses in the Second World War than in the First).

So that’s the German gas mask. Here is the British:

Hardly impressive. The French were the first to use chemical warfare in the First World War in 1914, yet the gas they deployed in their attacks was merely an irritant – tear gas. Of course these gas masks in the image above are primitive because the Germans were the first to use poison gas. The British, French and Canadians were totally unaware that they were being attacked by gas, at Ypres in 1915, when they saw the yellow gas cloud wafting across the land from the enemy trench. They believed that the cloud was a cover for an enemy advance and were ready and waiting. Instead they were caught up in the chlorine gas without any protection. The gas itself could be deadly, as when chlorine mixed with water particles in the lungs, it created hydrochloric acid which could drown the soldier from within.

The British also tried a gas attack in September 1915, but that was a total disaster as the wind they were relying on to take the gas over to the enemy actually blew the gas back on themselves. Combined with the Germans’ shelling, which caused more gas cannisters to erupt, and you can imagine the carnage.

The first makeshift gas masks were handerkerchiefs or gauze – the same stuff used for bandages and women’s sanitary pads – dipped in water, or, what was thought as more effective, urine. Initially, men resorted to handkerchiefs and gauze soaked in their own urine or dipped in the trench toilet, as urea was known to react with chlorine. Eventually, both were replaced with something a bit more substantial, yet still primitive:

Chlorine gas too was replaced with newer chemical developments. In 1915 France made its debut with phosphene gas – deadlier than chlorine.

Yet, most of us have heard of the infamous mustard gas. This was first used by the Germans in July 1917. Men dropped to the ground to avoid it but as mustard gas was heavy it sank to the ground, and would sit there remaining active for days. The effects of it? Severe internal and external bleeding causing stripping of the bronchials, skin blistering, sore, sticky eyes, and vomiting. In some unfortunate victims, this would lead to a 4/5 week painful deterioration towards death. It was too painful for these men to be bandaged, and the baths they took to wash off the gas particles put them in immense pain.

There are even worse pictures than this elsewhere…

The Last Post

From the first post to the last. By this I mean the Last Post at the Menin Gate Memorial.

This is the street in Ypres that leads up to the Menin Gate from the town square. Sorry about the quality but we were in a hurry – we being me, my sister and my friend. We were the youngest, by at least 15 years, on a coach trip of World War One enthusiasts that had taken four days out of their lives to travel around preserved mossy trenches, bleak cemeteries, and churned up fields visiting memorials and landmarks on a Guided Battlefield Tour. It may sound boring. It probably is to most under-25s, and probably to many over that.

So why were we in a hurry? Because it was five to eight and we were rushing to see the military men perform the Last Post, which takes place at 8pm every night beneath the Menin Gate. It’s occurred at that time every day since July 1928, apart from during the Second World War when the Nazis stopped it. B-loody Nazis. During this time, it took place at Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey. Yet, although it does occur every night, we were only there for one.

We’d had trouble getting served in the restaurant, as had most of the other people. It was rammo, as everyone was trying to down their food and Belgian beer to get to the ceremony. This was the second time I’d been. The first time I’d been was on a school trip when I was 17 in June 2004. It was sunny daylight that time. This time was at the end of October 2009. Welly weather.

The Menin Gate is a memorial to the missing – the many men who died in the Ypres Salient during the First World War. If you don’t know much about the war,  and are confused by this, then you should know there are many memorials to the missing throughout France and Belgium and loads of cemeteries for that matter, because literally there were so many men that died. They’re everywhere in Belgium. You couldn’t keep count. Due to the nature of the war, many men were buried in mass graves, or simply lost in the mud – bodies covered up by the ground constantly being tossed around by explosions, trench digging etc. The war ran from July 1914 to November 1918 and so many people died.

Picture this: on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the so-called “Big Push”, where the British and French began a massive offensive against the Germans, the British suffered roughly 57,000 casualties – just on the first day, with more than 19,000 men killed, not to mention the French and the German. It was meant to be a sort of team building exercise, uniting the British and French against the enemy at the point on the Somme river where the British and French troops met each other on the battlefront. It was also meant to bring about the end of the war. The Battle eventually ended on the 18th November. You can imagine how many more died after that first day.

The Battle of the Somme, however, was in France, and we were in Belgium at this point of the tour.

When we got there, we saw this:

If you look closely, you can see engravings in the wall. These are the names of more than 54,896 missing dead. To the right seemed to be a band of some sort. They came into action later.

It went quiet. Then a row of buglers marched up. They blew out the Last Post.

This time was different to the last time I’d been in 2004, when only the buglers had played.

This time, the band on the right played one of those traditional, old British pieces that you automatically associate with wars, but I can’t remember what it was now. Then finally a Scottish Highlander played a tune on the bagpipes. It got pretty emotional really, as I couldn’t help but think of those Scottish Highlanders during WWI, who played the bagpipes to boost the morale of their comrades as they fought, and themselves marched defenceless into enemy fire, playing the bagpipes until they fell.

You stand there and you think about pretty much everything at this point of the ceremony. Of course I thought about the war and everything I’d read, watched and studied concerning it, and then my brain galloped on through the twenties, thirties, WWII, fifties, sixties, seventies and onwards, through invasions and recessions and women’s liberation marches, and coal miner’s strikes, and everything else that happened in the 20th century. Through all the people who’d stood where I was standing. All the ghosts. And I looked around and I could have been surrounded by men and women in uniform, missing limbs and jaws and eyes, holding bandages, leaning on crutches, with twitches and tics. And they all turned to look at me. Lost people. And I thought, the funny thing is, you’d all be dead by now if you had survived the war. Funny thing, that.

And then the music stopped and the buglers and Highlanders walked away. And I blinked, and I thought Keep it together, keep it together. Nobody else appears to be taking it as seriously as you. Nobody else got lost then. Other people here are only here for the novelty of seeing this traditional ceremony. You’re too over-emotional. You weren’t there. Nobody else is getting teary, blink it away. Blink it away.

And then my sister turned around, and I looked at her face, and I knew I wasn’t the only one.