Learning how to feel about World War I

This past week, Tracy and I had a chance to visit major battlegrounds of Ypres, Somme, Verdun for the centennial of the WW1 armistice. If you have the chance, I highly recommend it. The memorials, cemeteries, and battlefields are accessible and well-traveled over the past 100 years.

World War One Armistice Day was Nov 11, 1918 – exactly 100 years ago.

This was the war to end all wars. The war America was part of but not too much, so we don’t learn much about it as WW2. The war where multiple countries had gone all in, in a geopolitical poker match costing over 15 million human souls.

But geopolitics is one thing. Seeing the gravestones is another.

A 26 year old private from Lancashire Infantry. An unknown soldier from the Australian Engineers. An American from Michigan, killed on Nov 10, the day before peace. Individual gravestones hold stories told, lost, and retold to help us remember that each of the individuals killed in World War I had their own sorrows and family left behind.

Hundreds of small military cemeteries are scattered around the farmlands of these battlefields. I have no idea how many there are, but our visit aimed to pay our respects to the most significant in the time we had.


We started in Ypres, a small Belgian city near the French/Belgium border that saw heavy fighting. It wasn’t just a single battle – the first, second and third battles of Ypres happened in 1914, 1915, and 1917.

Tyne Cot Memorial Service

Our highlight was a ceremonial burial of two unidentified Australian soldiers at the Tyne Cot Cemetery (the remains had only recently been excavated). 100 years later, the respect of WWI soldiers holds strong. We also stopped by Essex Farm Cemetery (location of the famous poem “In Flanders Fields“), the Vancouver Corner at St. Julien where a Canadian unit defended against the first use of gas warfare, and finally a german cemetery in Langemark that showed us a flash of equal and opposite tragedy.

At Ypres, busses of Belgian schoolchildren visited the same battlefields and cemeteries to get early education of the Great War. I hope they visit again, and again as their world views evolve.

The next stop was the Somme, where British troops went over the top to their deaths in an initially disastrous offensive. We listened to Dan Carlin’s (apparently amateur) WW1 podcast as we drove between the memorials of Beaumont-Hamel, Thiepval, Pozières, and Delville Wood. All were powerful in their own way – the names of 70,000 missing soldiers engraved on Theipval’s massive memorial will be especially hard to forget.

Thiepval Memorial – 70,000 missing soldiers engraved in its walls

Two and a half hours away was Verdun, a beautiful forest of death. The Douaumont Ossuary is one of the largest and most powerful French memorials – over 10000 white crosses lay in perfect grids overlooking autumn oaks. Equally beautiful was the Meuse-Argonne cemetery 45 minutes away, the tribute to American soldiers who laid down their lives for the final offensive to win the war. 16000 bodies lay in 8 perfectly organized blocks in the largest WW1 American memorial. The symmetry is mesmerizing.

On our last day, we tried to visit Vimy Ridge and Armistice Glade in Compiègne. We realized too late that PM Trudeau was honoring the Canadian effort at Vimy Ridge, and French PM Macron had reserved the day for the glade. Disappointing, but understandable as there is only one centennial to share.

 

 

First Australian Division Memorial in Ponzieres

Vancouver Corner at St. Julien – Where Canadians held off the one of the first German gas attacks.

Delville Woods – South African Monument

Douaumont Memorial in Verdun

 


Cemeteries, Memorials, Battlefields, Museums. Often they had similar designs and content. Museums always had visuals of western front battle lines and every one had uniforms. Gravestones were standardized and regimented. Memorials were statues with obituaries. A preserved trench pretty much looked like what you’d expect.

But this repetition didn’t have a boring effect. The repetition gave a persistent reminder of human tragedy, zoomed in and out. From the geopolitical and strategic analysis in museums, to the common trench experience, to individual stories of loss and grief, we could then back out to memorials where we could viscerally understand each other’s loss and respects.

We can extract geopolitical predictions from historical trends to warn against economic impact of potential war in our future lifetime. But in my opinion the biggest deterrent is looking upon these graves and the gravity of millions of individual stories that were cut short and never told.

All major WWI Commonwealth Memorials include a block with the quote “Their name liveth for evermore”