“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”—Robert Laurence Binyon (September 1914)
We humans are naturally most aware of the great tragedies occurring during our lifetime. In Vietnam the US suffered 60,000 fatal casualties; 36,000 were killed or wounded in Iraq; 23,000 were killed or wounded in Afghanistan. However, even by these standards, “The Great War”—World War I—shattered the entire world with a new type of warfare creating carnage on a heretofore unimagined scale. The British had over 3 million dead or wounded. Russia had over 9 million. Those left grieving counted in the millions upon millions. Survivors were left disoriented, bewildered, untethered from all that had once seemed good and dependable. Gertrude Stein would name this a “lost generation.”
In 1915 after the Second Battle of Ypres (in Belgium), Canadian physician John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” which said, in part:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row. . .
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
This poem held the kernel of what survivors would cling to: they would never forget those who had died.
Today in Ypres, Belgium, you can see this emotional commitment in statues such as the bas relief memorial showing a dead British soldier flanked by women mourning his death, the British lion roaring its grief. Ascending heavenward like Christ, this soldier is accompanied by an angel carrying a sword and a laurel crown, signaling immortality and reward for his bravery in battle.
You can attend the evening ceremony there at the Menin Gate that has taken place—with only a handful of exceptions—every day for over a hundred years: a poem of remembrance is read; a mournful trumpet sounds its salute; fresh flowers are laid.
A practical aspect of the memorials was that they offered the only focal point possible when the fallen were never recovered or never properly identified. In the heat of battle, army chaplains could only write a soldier’s name on a slip of paper, slip it into a bottle at the burial site, and hope the location might later be marked by a wooden cross.* The British government undertook to establish an Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) to take whatever action necessary to insure a respectful grave or remembrance for each soldier from the British Commonwealth. The Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres, Belgium is only one of the hundred of WWI cemeteries holding carefully tended graves planted with flowers.
The British government also commissioned famous architect Edwin Lutyens to design an empty tomb as a poignant reminder of the soldiers who would never return to their homeland. And the government very intentionally chose to place this Cenotaph in the middle of Whitehall, London’s busiest street. On November 11, 1920—the second anniversary of the Armistice–when King George V unveiled the monument and tossed “a handful of the soil from a Flanders battlefield into the grave,”* the entire nation was silent and no noise could be heard except for the sound of sobbing women.** For decades, buses would literally stop in London on November 11—Remembrance Day–at the eleventh hour and stand quiet for two minutes.
Even 100 years after the war—in 2014-2018–the British affirmed their faithful remembrance with ceremonies, conferences, and art displays such as the famous ceramic poppies cascading like bleeding tears down the Tower of London:
This war haunted England. They remember.
Next Time: Castle Howard–why “Brideshead” should be Revisited
*The Countess of Carnarvon, Lady Almina and The Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, (New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2011), 239.
**Adam. Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 348.
Tower of London and Cenotaph images—Open sources
Ypres memorials—Nancy Parrish