“Tending to a Grave”
“Two Canadian soldiers care for the grave of a fallen comrade. White stones, a wooden cross, and the deceased’s helmet act as grave markers.”
George Metcalfe Archival Collection.
I look out my window and wonder what this world was like 100 years ago.
There were no computers, fewer cars, no cellphones, no internet, no televisions. Letters were popular, as were newspapers and radios. Snapshot cameras were just beginning to make an appearance in the general population.
And there was no memory of the events we think about on this day. War itself was not new. But people had no knowledge of what “modern war” entailed.
100 Years Ago.
Was there conflict in the air? Were the signs all there? Did they recognize the signs at all? Maybe.
Perhaps they worried that war was coming. Perhaps they watched the developments in Europe with a sense of unease.
If they could have seen the new realities the war would bring…
November 11, 1913 – what did you know?
100 Years Ago.
You could not know that over the course of the next 5 years, millions of men would die. Millions more would be wounded. Fathers, brothers, sons, friends. They would leave your homes; never to return again.
You never imagined that in 1 year, or 2 or 5 you would lie cold, alone and scared in a field in France. Far from your family. far from your sweetheart. Would they be alright? Would they remember you?
You planned to become a scientist. A writer. A Father. A teacher. You can’t know that you won’t live to see your 20th Birthday. Let alone 30 or 50 or 60.
In less than 1 year, 1914, a war will start that will forever change Your World. Your men will never be the same (even those who make it home). Your women, your children? They may not have fought with guns and shells, but there World is forever altered.
The lives they could have had, should have had, lie broken and abandoned in the muddy fields of France. What do shattered dreams look like? I’ve seen pictures; read accounts. You soon will know firsthand.
But 100 years ago nobody knew.
Nobody knew that in a year, “Home by Christmas” would be a hope and dream quickly fading as the reality of trench warfare began to set in.
Do you know of Ypres, have you heard of Flanders? Dear friends, in just one year these names will begin to haunt your thoughts and your nightmares.
Ypres, Arras, The Somme, Passchendaele, The Marne. Right now these are places you may have heard of. In a matter of years I can almost guarantee you will have heard of them. They stole your hopes, your dreams, your future, your men, your boys.
Within 5 years you will wish you had never heard of these places. You will wish you could go back. You may have conflicting feelings about the war you signed up for. Camaraderie felt and even enjoyed, coupled with loss of friends, family and innocence on a scale few experience in their lives.
You dreamed of being remembered, by your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. Maybe you dreamed of your legacy. You never dreamed that in 100 years strangers would hear (or see your name) and remember. But only your name. As a combination of letters etched in a stone.
You aren’t remembered for the book you wrote or your contribution to science. We will never see your paintings. Never hear your poetry. You never became the great leader you dreamed of. You never made an impression on the lives of countless young people through your talent as a teacher.
You are remembered because you fought for your country, for your children, for your ideals. Maybe you fought because you had no choice. Whatever your motivation before you left, whatever kept you fighting once you were there. Whatever the last thoughts that crossed your mind. You are remembered because you fought. And you didn’t come home. Now your name is etched on a monument of remembrance.
You never dreamed that this form of remembrance, that of only your name, would be more than some of your fellow soldiers would get. That boy in your unit, you know the one, he signed up under a fake name, a fake age, so that he wouldn’t be sent home. He died under that name. His family never got the telegram. Will never know where he lays.
Or what of the grave I am viewing right now? The one that is labeled “unknown.”
100 years in your future, I am a historian. I sit in the comfort of my home and I think about you. We speak of remembering. We ‘remember’ the day in November 1918 when the guns were finally silent. We ‘remember’ but we’ll never really know. The relief you felt? The sadness? The grief for your friend who fell hours before (or after) the guns officially went silent? The hope that maybe you had achieved the impossible?
You had survived. And maybe, just maybe history would see what you hoped. That this hell you had survived would be the war to end all wars. Never again was the cry heard. The desperate hope of your heart.
But it wasn’t to be. In less than 25 years the guns would begin again. You remember as you watch your children don their uniforms. Familiar and yet unfamiliar. Normandy, Dieppe, St. Nazaire, the Falaise Pocket. New names etched onto old monuments. This time, there are no allusions that the peace will last.
The wars continued to this day. And so, for two minutes, one day a year, we ‘remember.’ We think about all you did. We think about why you fought. We pause ‘lest we forget’ that you fought and you died for a hope of freedom and a ‘never again.’ What do shattered dreams look like? The fields of France in 1918. The beaches of Normandy in 1944. The single casket that travels down a highway in 2009.
We remember a century of war speckled with brief moments of peace. November 11, 1918 what did you remember? Who did you remember? Who did you mourn?
Did you remember what you were doing November 1913, before the Great War came and ushered in vast fields of shattered dreams.
Lest we Forget.
(Note: in this piece I mostly talk about the men who fought – I am also aware of the women who have fought and served in some capacity in both on the war front and the home front. This is just the way I chose to focus the piece today.)
(Crossposted to Blogher)