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Passchendaele Centenary

Tyne Cot Cemetery

Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Passendaele

July 31 marked the 100th Anniversary of the start of the Battle of Passchendaele. Officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, it was one of the bloodiest battles of World War One. In less than three months of fighting, more than 500,000 Allied and German soldiers were killed or wounded.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (aka William and Kate) joined Prime Minister Theresa May, and Belgian King Philippe in commemorating those who lost their lives in the battle. Their itinerary included a visit to Tyne Cot Cemetery, where almost 12,000 British soldiers are buried, and laying a wreath at the Menin Gate in Ypres, inscribed with the names of more than 50,000 soldiers whose remains were never found.

Every evening at the Menin Gate local buglers play Last Post to honor the dead, a tradition they have kept faithfully since the end of the war.

World War I claims two more lives

Last week a grenade or shell that had been buried for nearly 100 years exploded when workmen dug it up at a building site near the town of Ypres, Belgium. This video gives you an idea of the thousands of World War I era munitions that litter the Belgian countryside, especially around key strategic points, like Ypres. Many of these explosives lie on the surface, or hidden just below. A special bomb disposal unit in Belgium collects between 150 million and 200 million tons of unexploded munitions every year.

Armistice Day in Ypres

I asked my sons, 13 and 16 years old, why Veterans Day is celebrated on November 11, and they didn't seem to know. What little US History they have had in school apparently didn't dwell long on the War to End All Wars. My oldest is currently in AP US History, but they have only gotten as far as the Civil War. Still, I would think the teacher might have taken the opportunity to mention that the 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month marks the official end of World War I.

There aren't many non-religious holidays in the US that are also commemorated in Europe (the Brits aren't big on July 4, for example), but November 11, Armistice Day, is one. Here's a little video of the British commemoration at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. Fluttering down through the openings on top of the gate are red poppies, the poppies of Flanders Fields. The Last Post, the British equivalent of Taps, has been played at the Menin Gate every single night for the past 95 years. Inscribed on the walls inside the gate are some of the names of the missing — not the confirmed dead and identified, just the missing and presumed dead. They had originally planned to include all the names of the missing, but ran out of room, so the list was continued on other monuments throughout the area.

Thankful villages

World War I . . . the Great War . . . the War to End All Wars officially ended on November 11, 1918. A combination of old school tactics and modern weapons resulted in loss of life on an unprecedented scale, Britain losing over 2% of their total population, France nearly 4.5%.

From the BBC:

On a single day in 1915 at the Battle of Aubers, 25 men from Wadhurst were killed - just under 80% of all those who went forward into no-man's land, and almost certainly the heaviest per capita casualties of any community in the UK for one day's battle. The majority of the fallen had no known grave.

Indeed, according to the WWI historian Dan Snow, it was often small communities, villages and hamlets in which the psychological burden of the carnage's aftermath was most painfully felt.

Largely to blame for this, Snow believes, was the system of Pals Battalions - units of friends, work colleagues and relatives who had been promised they could fight alongside each other when they enlisted amid the patriotic fervour of 1914.

The battalions were a useful recruiting tool for War Secretary Lord Kitchener, who believed that mobilising large numbers of enthusiastic recruits quickly was the best method of winning the war.

But the reality of the trenches, where thousands of men could be wiped out in a single day, meant that small communities could face disproportionate levels of bloodshed within a matter of hours.

Of about 700 "pals" from Accrington, Lancashire who participated in the Somme offensive, some 235 were killed and 350 wounded within just 20 minutes. By the end of the first hour, 1,700 men from Bradford were dead or injured. Some 93 of the approximately 175 Chorley men who went over the top at the same time died.

It's a rare town or village in either country that did not lose some member of it's community to the war. Those where all of the men came home alive are known as the Thankful Villages.

With its rows of ramshackle yellow stone cottages, set amid undulating Cotswold hills, the village of Upper Slaughter belies the violence of its name.

In hazy autumn sunlight, this corner of Gloucestershire might well have been rendered in watercolour. All the components of tourist-brochure Britain are here - the red phone box, the winding lanes, the wisteria draped around the windows.

But one normally ubiquitous feature is missing. Unlike the overwhelming majority of British settlements, Upper Slaughter has no war memorial.

Instead, tucked away in the village hall are two modest wooden plaques. They celebrate the men, and one woman, from the village who served in both world wars and, in every case, returned home.

For it is not only its postcard charm that offers pacific contrast to the name Upper Slaughter. It is that rarest of British locations, a "thankful village" - the term coined in the 1930s by the writer Arthur Mee to describe the handful of communities which suffered no military fatalities in World War I.

Read the whole article.

Underground warfare: beneath the trenches of the Somme

Anyone who has seen pictures from World War I is familiar with the scenes of muddy trenches, where soldiers spent a good part of their time hiding from enemy gun fire and shells. But deep underneath them, in tunnels up to 100 feet underground, their fellow soldiers were fighting a different war.

From the BBC:

Archaeologists are beginning the most detailed ever study of a Western Front battlefield, an untouched site where 28 British tunnellers lie entombed after dying during brutal underground warfare. For WWI historians, it's the "holy grail".

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