100 years ago: Armistice Day, end of WW I

nytimes-page1-11-11-1918

100 years ago to the day, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, an armistice went into effect that ended The Great War. Its reverberations are many to this day: I will just mention a few below. ( The Rearview Mirror has some further reflections. )

The people of the time did not call it (yet) World War One, as they thought the Great War would be the war to end all other wars. Sadly, its ambiguous ending sewed the seeds of another war, to be more terrible still. The myth spread that the losing side had not really lost on the battlefield, but had been “stabbed in the back” on the home front (the so-called Dolchstosslegende). The Versailles Treaty, and the crippling and frankly unrealistic reparations payments it imposed, did the rest: in the resulting instability, a demobilized, shiftless lance corporal who’d been sent to eavesdrop on a newly formed “German Workers Party” ended up its leader instead, and his case officer (Capt. Ernst Röhm) the commander of its party militia. The rest is (grisly) history.

In general, out of a quite human, understandable desire to never see such a large-scale conflict again, pacifist and appeasement sentiments ruled that actually emboldened such as had learned a very different lesson from the conflict — said corporal [y”sh] and his future partners in crime.

Not every invention brought to bear on WW I was just meant to kill people and break things. The Bosch-Haber ammonia synthesis, for instance, saved millions from starvation then and has been a life-giver ever since, even as its existence probably extended the war by another two years.

Another legacy of the war has been the attempts to create international organizations which were to prevent war — the League of Nations then, the United Nations after WW II. Lofty as the aims in their creation were, the UN, in particular, would degenerate into a sickening parody of itself, where “human rights commissions” can be chaired by bloody dictatorships, and an organization meant to assist one group of refugees from one conflict ended up perpetuating its own existence through the expedient of extending refugee status to all descendants of the original group in perpetuity — a definition not used for any other group of refugees.

Yet another, very different, legacy was in poetry. Fifteen of the best-known war poems are gathered here: let me quote just three.

In Flanders Fields, by John McRae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Soldier, by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Perhaps, by Vera Brittain

(Dedicated to her fiance Roland Aubrey Leighton, who was killed at the age of 20 by a sniper in 1915, four months after she had accepted his marriage proposal)

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.

 

 

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