During your lifetime, you have heard of wars, battles, generals, countries, but you don’t hear much about the simple SOLDIER. Poilu refers to a World War I French infantry soldier. We have many Poilu’s right here in Priest River, and many of you don’t know it.
During the days of the Roman Empire, this soldier would march on foot, with just sandals to some area, maybe 1,000 miles away. He would conquer the people there and then live there in a protective mode for four or five years, before being able to return home.
Around 1800, Napoleon was the leader of France and a great general, he led the foot soldier into what was then Austrian Empire, and into northern Italy. This foot soldier was in many battles, most of the time, he was ill fed and many times hungry, down to the point of making soup out of grass.
In WW I, the foot soldier was engaged in a new kind of battle, trench warfare. He would shoot, eat, and sleep in these trenches. And then try to advance to the next trench. When raining, the trenches would fill with water, and he suffered miserably. In my wife’s home town, Verdun, France, they had the battle of Verdun. In a area, 10 miles square in the forest, there wasn’t a tree left standing from constant shelling. In a three-month period, over 300,000 French and German foot soldiers were killed. Later, in the year that the U.S. was involved, 116,516 were killed. All foot soldiers, no politicians.
Advance to World War II where most are more familiar. Our foot soldier’s landed at Omaha Beach, some didn’t even make the landing, about 6,000 were killed on the first day. From there they ran into hedgerows, which were farmer’s rock fences from rocks picked up in the fields. They advance hedge to hedge, yard by yard and kept on going, day in and day out, more getting killed every day. This was just Europe, then there was the war in the Pacific, where the foot soldiers, got in landing craft to advance to these islands, Iwo Jima, Quadacanal and others. Our losses of foot soldiers, Navy, and Air Force, was a total of 405,000!
Then came the Korean War, in fact they never officially called it a war, it was The Korean conflict. Here, the foot soldier didn’t have the property footwear or clothing and suffered terribly from the cold. They had to endure the below freezing temperatures and a war. Many died and were frost bitten just from the cold. 54,0000 died in this what they called a “conflict,” not a war. Well, when you are in action and get shot, I would call that a war. They first fought the North Koreans, that wasn’t bad enough, then here came the Chinese regulars.
Then along came Vietnam, a new kind of war, a jungle war. These front line troops walked through the jungle, looking for the enemy, just waiting for the shots to ring out at them. It was a different type of war, just wondering when you were going to get shot. Funny thing, most thought, “it wasn’t me that was going to get shot, it was the other guy”. But at the same time, these soldiers were filled with fear. A total of close to 60,000 were killed. These soldiers were put in green body bags in rear areas, then to processing. I can still remember the smell of these bags and dead foot soldiers in them. This remembrance will never go away for those of us who experienced it.
Then along came Iraq and Afghanistan, here these soldiers, didn’t so much all walk to advance through the terrain, the rode in vehicles to advance, with battles in between. Then when they did occupy an area, they would go on patrol, both on foot and in vehicles. They never knew when someone would open fire on them, or an IED (improvised explosive device) would blow up their vehicle. And it is still happening with these soldiers getting their limbs blown off and have to live with that the rest of their lives.
In summary, in WWII, 12 percent of the population served in the military, now it is less than 1 percent. There is an old saying, “It is the politicians who start the wars, it is the soldier who dies.”