Do you know where the phrase, "over the top" comes from? It's one of those well-worn cliches that's lost its original meeting. And it's original meaning is horrific.
I've been listening to Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast. His series on WWI, Blueprint for Armageddon, is a must-listen.The Great War is overshadowed by its younger brother. And that's most likely because it was our grandfathers and and grandmothers who fought it, not some long-dead relatives. I contextualize it like this: My grandfather died in his late eighties, and his uncle fought in the First World War.
There's a trunk in the basement of my grandparents' house that holds the family relics and talismans. I'm told that great-great uncle's gas mask was once in there, but one of my uncles, or possibly my father, misplaced it. What's still in there is what looks like a gigantic New Year's Eve noisemaker -- the kind with the paddle that makes a clacking sound when you twirl it. This one is a lot like ours.
Imagine yourself, ankle deep in trench filth, and one of your buddies comes tearing along at a run, suited up like a mud-caked astronaut, twirling that sinister party favor above his head, his shouts of Gas! Gas! muffled by the folds of his mask. You scramble for your own as the deadly, low, yellow fog starts to sweep over and spill into the trench. You watch in horror as some of your friends are too slow to get their masks on, clutching at their throats, tearing at their clothes.
I'm told my uncle was too slow, once. I like to think he wasn't again.
That was one of the horrors of The Great War. The other was going over the top. A whistle would blow, and it was your turn to leave the trench and charge through the maelstrom of flying shrapnel, toxic gas, exploding shells and hot lead. Death was all but guaranteed.
I'm struck by this phrase, over the top, because it's taken on a meaning that diminishes and dilutes its original. Imagine your heart sinking, falling down into the pit of your stomach when you heard the order. And it falling even further when the whistle blew, and it was your turn to go.
And they went. Our great-great grandfathers and uncles went by the thousands. What compelled them to go? It's not my intention to answer. I don't think anyone who hadn't endured the horror them self ever could. But it does make you wonder what you're capable of, doesn't it?