Exactly 100 years ago Sunday, the guns fell silent along the battlefields in devastated northern France, but not until the horrific conflict of the Great War had claimed even more lives that very morning of Nov. 11. Nearly a million men from Britain and its Commonwealth died, and more from France, Germany, Austria and Russia. There were about 53,000 combat deaths among more recently arrived Americans (1917-18).
In every English city and village, one sees memorials, not only to those who served but to those who never came back. I’ll never forget visiting a few battlefields in France. As my wife and I gazed around the peaceful countryside, we saw white patches in the fields, and then it hit: They’re military cemeteries, dozens of them.
In the Belgian town of Ypres (known to the British as “Wipers”), which was totally demolished during the war and later lovingly rebuilt in medieval detail, there’s a large memorial — the Menin Gate. Its walls are engraved with the names of more than 54,000 British soldiers whose remains were never found. Every evening a small Belgian bugle corps plays a tribute, “The Last Post.” It was a moving experience.
Farther south, west of the French fortress of Verdun, is the largest American military cemetery in Europe, covering 130 acres and home to the graves of 14,250 soldiers from one of the bloodiest battles in American history — the month-long Meuse-Argonne offensive in the summer of 1918.
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The Great War remains a dividing point in modern history. Gone is faith in the inevitability of human progress. “Never again” takes a wrong turn — nearly universal pacifism in the western democracies. It’s understandable. The harsh (but not if you were French) Versailles peace treaty signed in 1919 and the social and financial chaos it spawned in a defeated Germany set the stage for the Second German War, as the Second World War is still known to some in England.
During the 1920s and 1930s, there were multiple, futile attempts to “outlaw war,” such as the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928, the toothless League of Nations (in which we didn’t participate), the Oxford Union debates and others where young men resolved never again to fight for “king and country.” This attitude was reflected in the futile efforts of Britain and France to appease Adolf Hitler’s aggressions in the late 1930s. All the while America slept, resolved to never again get mixed up in European conflicts.
And then the Second World War came in due course, which the great prime minister and historian Winston Churchill called “the preventable war.” France and many smaller European countries were overrun and occupied for four or more years. Britain survived, just barely, until Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June 1941 and America entered the war after Japan joined in with its demonic Pearl Harbor attack in December. An estimated 56 million people were killed in that war, including many civilians. Another horrendous, worldwide conflagration.
The Second World War was indeed preventable. In March 1936, Hitler defied the advice of his generals, breaking the Versailles treaty and marching his then-small army into the demilitarized Rhineland. The democracies did nothing, thereby allowing Germany to proceed with more defiant aggressions to the point, on the invasion of Poland in 1939, when Britain and France could tolerate it no longer, declaring war. It was Chapter 2.
What was learned? America and its NATO allies faced down the Soviet Union in the four decades following 1946. The Korean War forced a tough military response, but the second half of the 20th century was notable for the absence of worldwide, all-out conflict. The slogan “peace through strength” seemed to make sense in the Cold War, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Fifty years ago, as a young medical resident in Montreal, following my own military service, I watched an unforgettable parade of proud surviving veterans of the Great War marching behind a large phalanx of scarlet-coated Mounties and followed by a marching band. Today their veteran descendants who survived the Second World War are being lost to time. The best way to honor them for their sacrifice is to never again let our democracies be perceived as weak, or making excuses for those who would do us great harm. Let’s never allow another Great War.
Alan W. Boone is a retired physician. He lives in Bangor.