I am so terribly sorry to have left you hanging for nearly six months, but this pesky little thing called life got in the way. Such nuisances as work, cleaning, and graduate school applications have eaten away nearly every second of my time, and when I wasn’t swamped with those things, I was out of town, fleeing Naples for the cleaner climes of northern Europe. But here I am, and with something presumably profound (?) to share with you: Remembrance Day in the Somme region of France, and a brief look at the origins of that day.
I had a professor at USC, Dr. Seip, who taught me that in order to really, truly understand a war, one has to travel to its sites, to see what happened and where. In a way, this has become one of my two guiding principles in approaching history– the other is rather bizarre, so we’ll leave it for another day– because I truly think that in visiting historical sites, we are able to see and understand history in a way that we would otherwise be unable to. So it happened that my endlessly tolerant and supportive husband and I woke up at 2:45 am, drove to Rome, and flew to Paris with the intent of renting a car, driving to Amiens, and seeing the remnants of the Great War during the global day of remembrance that its destruction spawned.
For me, it was a sort of pilgrimage. I needed to see the scarred earth, to understand that I was standing on the unmarked, untended graves of so many thousands of men; I needed to smell the air, stand in the trenches, and look out over a frozen No Man’s Land. Having been buried for so many months in books speaking of the destruction, I needed to see it for myself, to walk the ground, and understand a the war a little bit better.
I am not an inherently spiritual person, but there is something that shakes one to the very core about seeing hundreds of cemeteries, thousands of graves marked simply, “Inconnu,” or “A Soldier in His Majesty’s Army.” So many lives, wasted. I’ve mentioned before that it for the soldiers that I am a military historian. I can leave battle tactics, strategies, and weaponry to others. They can have it. Rather, I want to understand how war impacts, and potentially breaks, though men and women who fight it. I want to know what it was like, because I believe, to the very bottoms of my boots, that if we understand this, truly internalize it, then we may be better equipped, if not to end it, then at least to mitigate its effects to the best of our abilities. So I stood on freezing cold hillside after freezing cold hillside, stared out into No Man’s Land from a landscape still pockmarked nearly a century later, and contemplated how it might have felt to have served in the Somme during 1916.
What follows are a few observations made while standing on ruined battlefields and driving through small French farming villages. They are merely my own observations about the Great War, remembrance, and things I learned from walking the ground.
1. The Great War was incredibly bloody. Although most of us look at the numbers, and remark on them, we fail to truly understand what this meant in terms of humanity until we see the graveyards. Within a one hour drive from Amiens to Péronne, we saw perhaps six or seven. Amiens and Péronne were a fair distance behind the lines. The drive from Péronne to Arras, which included Thiepval and Albert, had so many that we lost count. Easily seventy five, tucked into every town and every hillside. Although most of these cemeteries are not large, they speak to the absolute destructiveness of this war.
2. The distance troops had to run to get from the “reserve trenches” to the enemy trenches was minuscule, which throws into sharp perspective just how terrifying and how bloody the war was that it took men hours to travel what I could walk in a minute or two now. In running 100 meters, units could suffer almost 100% casualty rates. When I looked out over the old battlefield, I could better understand why these men suffered combat trauma on a level not seen before or since.
3. I could see why the war was called “the war to end all wars.” Even as the product of the modern era, and well-versed in most of the wars of the 20th century, the level of destructiveness surprised me. Wandering through Beaumont-Hamel, there is hardly an inch of soil that is not scarred, either with a shell crater or a trench system. Trees are nearly nonexistent past the reserve trenches, with the exception of such skeletal remnants bearing the worrisome names of “the Danger Tree.” We pilgrims are warned not to wander too much, exhorted to remain behind the cordons: behind the ropes lie not only the remains of those poor souls who died in No Man’s Land and were never recovered, but also of thousands of pounds of unexploded ordnance. After the 1916 offensives, I can imagine that the entire Somme area had begun to resemble nothing so much as a barren hell. It is no small wonder that those who saw could hardly imagine another war after the trauma of 1914-1918.
Let’s now depart from the realm of emotion and experience, and back into the lovely world of history. Each November 11th, we celebrate a day known as Veterans’ Day, Remembrance Day, and Armistice Day. In 2013, I question how many Americans truly understand what Veterans’ Day is, why we observe it, and why it is so important that we continue to do so.
On the eleventh minute, of the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, the guns that had pounded Europe for over four years fell silent, marking what many hoped to be the end of humanity’s violent course of warfare. One year later, in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson chose that day, so rife with meaning, as a national day of remembrance, stating: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…” These sentiments were also expressed by King George V of England, who, speaking on behalf of all British Commonwealth countries, wished to remember the fallen of the Great War and dedicated November 11th, in perpetuity, as a day of remembrance.
In effect, Remembrance Day, as I prefer to call it, is meant to be about exactly that: remembrance, and thanksgiving. Although initially referring specifically to World War I and its casualties, since 1919, it has evolved into a remembrance of all sacrifices made during war. It is an opportunity for us, as average citizens, to contemplate the actions of a small group of men and women free from the political cloud. Whether or not we agree on the justness of a war (and I tend to be of the thinking that war is only very rarely just), we can agree that war is horrendous, and death occurring within its confines tragic. So, Remembrance Day gives us the opportunity to remember, to contemplate, and to imagine what war does to our societies and our cultures. Sometimes, I hope that if we are able to recall what it was that November 11th was meant to be about, the celebration of the end of war, and the collective mourning of war’s dead, that perhaps we might be more reluctant to support war in all but the most just of cases.
One final discussion of Armistice Day– the poppy. Generally considered the symbol of the day, and of remembrance, it has two-fold meaning in the United States and the Commonwealth countries (other nations chose different flowers to represent mourning, loss, or remembrance). First, it represents the poem which is by now famous as paean to the Great War dead: “In Flanders Fields,” by Lt. Col. John McCrae. The poem’s famous first several lines, “In Flanders Fields, where poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row,” speak to the sheer number of war dead, and the juxtaposition of so much death in such a beautiful place. The poppy’s symbolism is meant to remind us not only of the poem, but also of its reflections on death. Its second meaning follows on these reflections of death: the red of the poppy symbolizes blood. It is meant to make us consider the blood spilled, the lives lost, and the generations wasted. For me, at least, it makes me consider the cost of war. Is it ever not too high a price?
“Armistice Day.” Wikipedia.
“History of Veterans Day.” Department of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. Veterans’ Affairs.
“In Flanders Fields.” Wikipedia.
All images represented here are my own.