This past week we had a date anomaly – the day, week and month all mirroring each other. But for a small, and ever-dwindling, group of men, the past seven days were significant for a reason far more profound than calendar alignment. They gathered at sites across Europe and America commemorate the moment when, on the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of 1918, the roaring guns of World War I finally fell silent.
It soon became known as the “Great War,” yet that is ill-fitting in all respects save one – the great sacrifices made by soldiers and their families on both sides. More than 8.5 million died (and a further 21 million were wounded), and their number has been dubbed “The Lost Generation,” to signify the enormous loss of life and potential on the fields of Flanders and beyond.
After the war, the leaders of the Western Allies idealistically hoped for permanent peace, though the League of Nations that was set up to foster togetherness and prevent future hostility quickly proved to be a paper tiger. Nonetheless, the sentiment of “never again” was on most lips among the “victors.” Meanwhile, the defeated Germans smarted, not just at their losses of men and material, but also at the overly-punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which punished the “Fatherland” by imposing harsh sanctions on an already ravaged economy, and confiscated territories far and wide. It was the resulting frustration and the promise of restoring national pride that enabled Hitler to take power so swiftly and terribly in the mid to late 1930s. Even with his rise, the majority outside of Germany still hoped for peace, not seeing that no number of Munich Agreements could slake the Fuhrer’s lust for revenge and land.
Though it is easy with hindsight to slam those who, like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, signed such treaties and they must certainly be held accountable for inaction and, in some cases, capitulation, it is just as easy to forget how horrendous the trench-based battles of World War I were, and the impact they had on the collective psyches of both the victors and the vanquished.
Trench foot, rat bites, and typhoid were rampant, as the soldiers literally rotted in their water-logged holes, to say nothing of the mustard gas. There was no sanitation, no clean facilities to treat the wounded, no place to bury the dead. Then, when they were sent over the top, the weak, despairing bunch were greeted by machine gun fire that toppled their ranks like contorted dominoes and, if they advanced to the enemy lines, were ensnared as if they were game in barbed wire, or run through by enemy bayonets. Those who did not capture their foes’ positions yet could not make it back to their own trenches were sometimes so stunned by the clamor, the fear and the firework flashes of barking muzzles that they wandered around in “No Man’s Land” until captured, finished off or, for a lucky few, retrieved by their comrades. Some opposing trenches gained or lost a total of mere inches over the course of the war.
And so, can we blame Chamberlain and his ilk for wanting to never repeat such brutality? Even Winston Churchill, his most outspoken critic and the man whose vision highlighted his predecessor’s short-sighted foreign policy, could not condemn Chamberlain, saying at his funeral, “It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? . . . They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart—the love of peace.”
60 years after Chamberlain’s doomed attempt to save Europe from repeating the carnage of The Great War, I journeyed to Belgium for what was, I soon realized, one of the most moving experiences of my life. Along with 20 A-Level history classmates and our two teachers, we toured some of the pivotal World War I battlefield sites and watched the surviving veterans gather at the Menin Gate, tears streaming down their wrinkled faces as they hunched over in wheelchairs or leaned against stout sticks. They lit candles to commemorate their fallen brethren’s sacrifice.
Though going into the claustrophobic trenches was terrifying and viewing the seemingly infinite list of names at the Allied cemeteries depressing, I was most affected by a little country graveyard on the top of a Belgian hill. There, rows of white Portland stone headstones stood in neat rows on newly-trimmed, almost impossibly green grass, arrayed in a manner far more dignified than the inglorious ends of the lives they commemorated. My father owns a monumental mason’s business in England, so I am used to seeing well-kept cemeteries with finely-worded inscriptions on stone. But the sadness and, in some cases, disbelief of the families who had lost their boys on foreign fields was so starkly recorded that it was almost too much to take. And boys most were—19, 17, some even 16 years old—from a cluster of English villages. Communities’ entire young male populations finished. Dead. Never coming back. We learned from our instructors that some 14- and 15-year-olds had even faked birth certificates so they could go to the front with their pals. Knowing I would not have been so brave, I left with tears burning hot on my cheeks. No, I could not cry the same way that those old men in Ypres wept, for what do I know of war, of seeing my closest friends cut down like they are nothing? Yet, as I scribbled some heartfelt lines in my notebook later, I knew that any illusions I had of war being glorious were forever gone.