Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Armistice Day

World War I, or the Great War, as it was known in that more innocent time before we started numbering our world wars, was supposed to be the "war to end all wars." As we all know, World War II followed so soon afterward that we often forget all about that first war.

Today is celebrated as Veterans' Day to honor all of our veterans, as is appropriate. However, it is important to remember World War I and realize that Veterans' Day is commemorated on November 11 because it was on this date, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, that the Armistice was signed, ending this first, horrific world war.

The Times had an excellent editorial published yesterday, about World War I.

In it they reminded us that the best commemoration for the end of a war is to promote peace.

"What we are likely to have forgotten is the horror the Great War stirred in those who witnessed it. For many, the full horror dawned slowly, as they clung to a comfortable self-insulation. As Vera Brittain wrote in her memoir, “Testament of Youth,” we would “never be at the mercy of Providence if only we understood that we ourselves are Providence.” That is a hard truth to take in. She struggled with the things we still struggle with, especially ridding herself of the feeling that “what was going on outside our homes didn’t matter to us.”

To seek peace, to oppose war, to cherish memory is a way to honor veterans on this day of armistice, this Veterans Day."

In honor of all those who died in the Great War, I'd like to post some of the poetry of World War I:

In Flanders Fields
By Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
Canadian Army

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.

Alan Seeger celebrated the heroism of the soldier:


I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air--
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath--
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear . . .
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

But not all World War I poets extolled taking up the "quarrel" with the foe or celebrated heroism. Wilfred Owen, another World War I poet, wrote this poem on the futility of war and the fact that it's always the young who die:

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent maids,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

The language may be poetic or even archaic, but the meaning is as pertinent today as it was 90 years ago when the Great War ended.

To quote a more recent poet, Pete Seeger,

When will they ever learn?


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

It was a horrific war and has been the subject of many great novels in the last 20 years.

Anonymous said...

You ask, "When will they ever learn?"

I propose they won't, unless science makes it possible for men to give birth.

It they could hold that brand-new human being in their arms the minute after they've pushed it out of their bodies, wars would be no more.

D.K. Raed said...

This was a very thought-provoking post ... so many lives, in WWI an entire generation of young men, all gone.

One of my favorite anti-war movies was about WWI: "Johnny got his Gun". It was based on a novel written in 1938 by Dalton Trumbo. The movie was so graphic, I've never been able to read the novel.

Comrade Kevin said...

I'm glad for the increased scholarly focus on this conflict, particularly because so many of the lessons of the conflict are, as you mentioned, still pertinent to us today.

Randal Graves said...

Long live nationalism!

The only solution is probably the one proposed by Hill.

Naw, we'd still find a way.

Chris Dashiell said...

A day originally celebrating the end of war is turned into a day celebrating war. That's the way revisionism works.

Mauigirl said...

Ruth, yes, I guess WWI has been receiving attention in recent years; I have also seen recent articles about the last few survivors of the war, including a 112-year-old veteran I saw profiled in the newspaper the other day.

Hill, thanks for pointing this out - I agree, if men actually gave birth to their children they would never let them go to war.

D.K., I have heard of this movie and book but never saw/read them. Will have to check out the movie.

Kevin, maybe if enough people study wars they might actually learn from them and not keep repeating the same mistakes.

Randal, maybe if the leaders of every country were women it would work...

Mauigirl said...

Chris, yes, it is ironic, isn't it?

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