Saturday, November 16, 2013

Remembering the Great War

The 100th anniversary of one of Europe’s worst wars is fast approaching. You could sense its nearness in Armistice Day ceremonies last week. My wife and I were in Belgium visiting her mother and watched television coverage of memorial observances Nov. 10 at the Cenotaph in London and Nov. 11 at Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.

The Cenotaph
These were serious and solemn, following rituals that their participants and many attendees knew well. Even to an outside observer, they conveyed an emotional connection to the events of 1914-18 that has been absent during the Civil War sesquicentennial on this side of the Atlantic.

The Cenotaph (the word means empty tomb) is Great Britain’s national war memorial. It is a simple monolith in Whitehall with a wreath on each side and just three words: The Glorious Dead. The empty tomb is the stone coffin on top.

The permanent monument was built in 1920 to honor the Great War dead who did not return, but the years of World War II were later added in Roman numerals. The Cenotaph now honors the dead of all Britain’s wars.

Television coverage of the ceremony reflected this more catholic commemoration. One report featured the great-grandson of one of four brothers from Glasgow killed during World War I. He showed a photograph of them and told their stories. The next interview focused on a young man who was learning Pashtun and attempting to improve the lives of civilians in Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device blew him up. His mother had made her own memorial for him, a box with separate photo files for the phases of his life. The last files, where his marriage and family life would have gone, were empty, and will remain so.

As military units march past last Sunday, a steward arranges poppy wreaths at the Cenotaph.
The ceremony itself consisted of muted pomp and the laying of wreaths. The queen was the first to set a ring of poppies before the Cenotaph. Before the last note drifted into the cool November skies, a carpet of red covered the apron before it.

The British observe Armistice Day on the Sunday closest to the Nov. 11, the day the war ended in 1918. The ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres is on the 11th. It also has a heavy British accent, as the British manned the trenches in this salient of the Western Front and lost heavily here. “Last Post,” the British version of “Taps,” is still played daily at 8 p.m. in Ypres. This has been the case since 1928 with the exception of 1940-44, when the Germans occupied the city.

The Menin gate
The Menin Gate specifically honors the men of the British Commonwealth who died in the Ypres Salient during World War I and lie in unknown graves. Of the 300,000 British soldiers killed here, 90,000 were simply lost – obliterated, sunk in the mud, left to rot in no-man’s land. The names of half the 90,000 are engraved on the walls of the gate. Occasionally human remains are still found during road and building projects in the area.

The ceremony at the Menin Gate was similar to the one in London with dirges and poppy wreaths. The most poignant moment came with the playing of “Oh! Valiant Hearts,” a hymn comparing the sacrifice of Britain’s World War I dead with that of Christ. The first stanza goes:

O valiant hearts who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.

As the hymn was played, hundreds of small red crepe hearts streamed through the portals atop the Menin Gate and cascaded to the pavement below.

Alan Rowe, a World War II veteran, and a young boy during the shower
of "valiant hearts" during the ceremony Monday at the Menin Gate.
In addition to the annual rituals on this day, a group of schoolchildren from Belgium and Great Britain participated in the ceremony. They represented a larger group of students who collected soil from 70 World War I battlefields and British cemeteries in Belgium and place it in sandbags. During the ceremony the children escorted soldiers carrying the bags to a gun carriage. When the carriage was filled, the bags were covered with a shroud and slowly driven away.

The British soldiers hauling the soil had also taken part in the ceremony at the Cenotaph the day before. They brought the sandbags to the Lakenhalle (cloth hall), the most prominent building in Ypres to await transport to London. There it will be used in a new memorial garden. The schoolchildren and their classmates have pledged to care for British military cemeteries in Belgium.

Thus, even after memory fades and grief subsides, the torch is passed.

But, as I also learned on this trip, despite such moving rituals, history is never cut and dried. I'll tell you what I mean in the next post.

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