November 11, 2009
On the eleventh hour (GMT) of this date ninety-one years ago, the firing ceased and the “war to end all wars” came to an end, but not before an estimated sixteen million were killed and twenty-one million wounded over four years and three months of utter horror.
The day is celebrated in much of the world as Remembrance Day, a fitting title as the war destroyed a generation of British, French, German and Russian youth. An elderly English gentleman I know, a graduate of one of Oxford’s colleges, once told me of photographs hung on a wall of his college’s team captains for the class of 1914. Of the young men depicted in the more than twenty photographs, only one survived.
The War marked the end of Tsarist Russia, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and the German Kaiser. The map of Europe changed, with Russia (now the Soviet Union) renouncing claims to Poland and the Baltic Countries – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were established as new countries, carved from the Austrian and German empires respectively. Austria and Hungary were established as independent countries.
The War also produced some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, many by young men like Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, Isaac Rosenberg and Edward Thomas none of whom survived the War. Alan Seeger, an American poet and author of those haunting lines, “I have a rendezvous with death/At some disputed barricade,” was killed in 1917 at Belloy-en-Santerre. Roland Leighton, who had become engaged to Vera Brittain, author of the evocative Testament of Youth, was killed on December 23, 1915 at Lauvencourt, France. With my wife, son Sydney and his wife Beatriz, I visited his grave in October 2000.
One of the best known poems is “In Flanders Field”, written on December 8, 1915, by John McCrae. The middle stanza reads:
“We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Field.”
War is the most serious event of one’s life and yet can seem so wasteful. On the signing of the Armistice, on November 11, 1918, Thomas Hardy wrote a poem: “And There Was a Great Calm.” The final stanza reads:
“Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth and silence in the sky:
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit whispered: ‘It had to be!’
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered,’Why?’
Europe, in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, was prosperous. Trade was expanding. Electricity, automobiles, the telephone and other products of the Industrial Revolution were dramatically altering and improving the average family’s life. The old monarchies, in Germany, Austria and Russia were visibly failing, as democracy relentlessly marched onward. Yet the guns of August thundered in 1914.
There were no evil men. Propaganda turned the Kaiser into a killer of Belgian babies, but he was no Hitler. It had been the absence of war, and then its romanticizing that drove so many to enlist. Other than the Franco-Prussian conflict, war had been largely absent from the European continent since Napoleon had been exiled to St. Helena ninety-nine years earlier – so the horrors of war had been erased from memory – it had been a remarkable period of peace on a continent that had been at war for most of the previous thousand years. It was this innocence, coming at a time of remarkable prosperity and general goodwill among nations, which made this war so awful.
There is no such thing as a “good” war. There are wars that are justifiable and there are others that are not. Often, it is only with the distance of time that we can truly tell the difference. Nazism was worth eradicating, yet had it not been for the First World War there may well never have been the need for a Second. That is part of the tragedy of 1914.
The most difficult and lonely decision a President can make is to commit troops to combat, yet there are times when he must. Only time will validate his decision. As difficult as it may be for those of us leading comfortable, peaceful lives, and as distant we are from the roar of guns, we have a democratic system worth defending and preserving. Today we have soldiers committed to that end in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whatever we call today – Veterans, Armistice or Remembrance – we must remember the day, remember the fallen and remember the reasons for the conflict. We owe a debt of gratitude to our armed services today. We have an allegiance to those who fought, wept and died in past wars, so that today we may enjoy, laugh and live.