We spent yesterday in the painfully beautiful and painfully touristed town of St. Paul de Vence.
Nearby is the far more interesting (and far less touristed) town of La Colle-sur-Loup.
It is smaller, has missed the tourist crush for some reason, and a lot more pleasant.
At the center of town is one of those World War I memorials that France is full of, and generally no one spends any time looking at. It lists the dates 1914-1918 on the top, and then has a long list of engraved names.
Les mortes sur guerre
Normally one tends to give these things a pass, but if you take a moment to look, they tell a terrifying story.
There are more than 60 names on the list of those killed between 1914-1918. There are no reliable census number that I can find for this small town from 1914, but the nearby village of Les Beaux lists 450, so I would guess that La Colle sur Loup must have been of about similar size.
60 dead from a village of 450, all within 4 years.
In essence, an entire generation of young, marriagable men must have been wiped out almost at once.
At the Battle of Verdun (1916), there were more than 250,000 dead and more than 1 million wounded. And this was one battle of a four year war. The French suffered 161,000 dead at Verdun. By the time the war was over, France would count nearly 1.7 million dead.
11% of France’s entire population were killed or wounded in the First World War. That would the equivalent of the US taking 33 million casualties in Iraq.
This is an astonishing number. The carnage must have been incomprehensible. And the impact – the loss of an entire generation for all practical purposes – massive. Even in small villages like this.
How did it happen? How did it happen that so many died?
A great deal of it has to do with the ramifications of technology outpacing thinking. The First World War saw the introduction of the machine gun. A killing machine. Just push the button. Military planning in those days was a remnant of a far earlier era. Two lines of soldiers marching towards each other with sabre and horses. Success on the battle field had more to do with elan and courage. Bravery in the face of death!
Line after line of brave French soldiers marched into the meatgrinder of machineguns only to be mowed down before they had advanced more than a few inches.
Line after line.
Yet it went on and on and on.
General Petain became famous at Verdun for the line “they shall not pass”. And so the killing machine continued for four bloody years, largely because technology arrived ahead of thinking.
This is not at all unusual.
The expression ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ is completely wrong.
Invention arrives first, unbidden and generally badly understood. Knowledge of how to use the invention and what it means comes much later.
The Internet is sort of the same.
Its impact of old ways of thinking is just now being felt. Old ways of working, of gathering and distributing information and content no longer work. Old ways of monetizing transactions increasingly no longer make sense. But just as the generals in France kept throwing young men into battle in lines because they could not think really of anything else to do; so too do those who lead major companies facing a similar technology that they just cannot really comprehend.
Those memorials all over France to the 1.7 million dead in the First World War are more than just a memorial to the men who were killed. They are also reminders of our human instinct to resist change to stick with what we know.. even to the death.