Those of us who have long forgotten our high school history lessons have probably also forgotten the original significance of honoring veterans on November 11th. The very first veterans day was on November 11, 1919, the date chosen to mark the anniversary of the end of The Great War. Hostilities between the allied nations and Germany ceased literally at the eleventh hour: 11:00 on 11/11/1918.
From then on each November 11th was remembered as Armistice Day, a time to reflect and honor the veterans who fought in Europe. By 1954 the war to end all wars had simly become a number in a string of world-wide conflicts. The Great War became known as World War I, and Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day.
In our modern age of precision guided missiles and smart bombs, living in a country that has not been a battlefield anytime in living memory, it’s easy to forget just what a bloody, destructive business war is, and how long the effects can last.
World War I has been called the first modern war. Huge advances in technology and machinery allowed the combatants to kill each other on an unprecedented scale. Entire villages simply disappeared from the map, and the war left scars and dangers that still threaten the local inhabitants.
Between late July 1914 and early November 1918, more than 10 million soldiers were reported killed or missing in action. Some simple math produces an average of about 6400 killed per day. Cemeteries dot the countryside of northern France and Belgium, immaculate grass lawns planted with crosses, like row crops ripe for harvest.
A remarkable two million of those dead were missing in action, presumed dead. Many of these were killed in the fatal No Man’s Land between trench lines, or blown apart by mortar and shell blasts that left no identifiable traces of the soldiers. Their remains were collected after the war, and are housed in ossuaries, silent resting places for bits of bone too small or too far decayed to identify.
A few were killed by huge artillery blasts which literally buried them alive in their trenches. One such sight is located near the town of Verdun, east of Paris. Known as the Trench of Bayonets, the rusting tips of the bayonets still protrude from the earth, fixed on the ends of the rifles carried by the soldiers buried just a few feet below.
The village of Fleury, also near Verdun, had the misfortune of being in that No Man’s Land between trenches. Today it exists as nothing but a memorial. Plaques mark the line of long destroyed streets, show where the village bakery stood, where a farmhouse.
Though Verdun is better known to most Americans, I prefer exploring WWI history in southern Belgium. It was in the killing fields of Flanders that John McCrae, a doctor serving with the British forces, penned the most famous poem from the time.
IN FLANDERS FIELDS
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Like Fleury, the Flemish village of Ieper was completely destroyed during the war. To the legions of British youth who defended the Ypres Salient, it was known as "wipers" (in French and English the town name is spelled Ypres, in Flemish Ieper). Winston Churchill wanted to leave the town as a ruined wreck, a permanent memorial to the British war dead. Because the Belgians were against this, the Versailles Treaty instead demanded that Germany pay for the entire reconstruction cost.
Today Ieper is a bustling commercial center, with a restored historic core that includes cobblestone streets, Gothic and Renaissance buildings, and the magnificent cloth hall, originally built in the 13th century. The cloth hall houses the Flanders Fields Museum, a multi-media experience that throws you into the mud and chaos of trench warfare. Upon entry you are given a card with the name and picture of a soldier or civilian. At computer stations throughout the museum you follow the progress of that person, find out about their family, their lives, and ultimately whether or not they survived the war.
Ieper is still a pilgrimage destination for Brits, who’s grandfathers or great-uncles perished in Flanders Fields. Every evening a small crowd of visitors and locals gather at the town’s Menin Gate to hear the playing of Last Post, the British bugler’s version of Taps. On the gate are inscribed the names of 56,000 British missing.
Aside from the cemeteries and memorials, the war lingers on in everyday life. Huge sections of forest are off limits, fenced and posted with signs warning of unexploded munitions. Farmers still find grenades, mortars, and artillery shells while plowing their fields. For those who live near places like Verdun or Ieper, the war, though it has been over for 90 years, is a constant presence.
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