On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 the Allied and German artillery on Europe’s Western Front finally fell silent. The cessation of hostilities accomplished by the Armistice – signed in a railroad carriage in the Compiègne Forest in France – closed a chapter on what has to be considered one of the most pernicious and destructive conflicts in human history. The Great War – dubbed the war to end all wars – claimed the lives of close to ten million combatants and left an indelible mark on the countries of Europe and especially the United Kingdom. From the war memorials and cenotaphs that can be found in towns and villages the length and breadth of Britain to the 2,500 carefully manicured Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries located around the globe there is indeed – as Rupert Brooke reflected in his poem ‘The Soldier’ – some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.
Known in the UK as Remembrance Day – and in the United States as Veterans Day – the sacrifice of members of both British and US armed forces has been observed annually on November 11th since 1919. Initially honoured in the USA as Armistice Day – during the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson – the federal holiday has since been extended to encompass the veterans of the numerous conflicts that have ensued since 1918. “To us in America,” said President Wilson, “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.” Of course, as American influence has expanded around the globe the parents, siblings, partners and children of US servicemen and women have regrettably become all too familiar with those “foreign fields” that the poet-soldier Rupert Chawner Brooke referenced in his poem almost a century before.
The US pledge that ‘no soldier will be left behind’ which emerged largely as a result of this country’s experience in Vietnam – 1689 US service personnel are still listed as missing (MIA) – was simply not possible during WWI. The astronomical number of fatalities – close to 20,000 British soldiers died in just one day of fighting during the opening of the Somme Offensive – led to the British Government decreeing that the repatriation of the fallen was not a viable option. However, some form of tribute was seen as necessary and war memorials provided the answer. Unencumbered by America’s preoccupation with the separation of church and state – and the concomitant requirement for an absence of any religious iconography – some 100,000 war memorials now dot the British Isles. The most recent addition being the National Memorial Arboretum in the British Midlands which provides gardens of remembrance for all branches of Britain’s armed forces. This includes civilian forces like the Merchant Marine whose heroic sacrifice in WW2 quite literally kept Britain in the war.
Major War Memorials in Great Britain:
- The National Memorial Arboretum, in Alrewas, Staffordshire, England includes The Armed Forces Memorial and the disturbing and moving Far East Prisoner of War (FEPOW) Memorial Building;
- The Cenotaph, Whitehall, London. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the memorial – dedicated to the glorious dead – was unveiled by King George V on 11 November 1920;
- The Royal Air Force Memorial, Victoria Embankment, London, England.
- United Kingdom National Inventory of War Memorials an adjunct of Britain’s Imperial War Museum is working on a registry of war memorials in the United Kingdom. This will help you find local war memorials.
As time passes the many names inscribed on these monuments, plaques and cenotaphs will fade from memory and the tremendous sacrifice that these servicemen and women made on our behalf might also be consigned to history were it not for the timeless epitaph that the war poets have provided. Like Wilfred Owens’ Dulce et Decorum Est, with its graphic description of the horrors of trench warfare, or John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ – which recounts the battles that raged ceaselessly across the picturesque French poppy fields in Flanders – we are reminded at every turn that we have been charged with keeping the faith and honouring such sacrifice – not just in the Great War but in all wars before and since.
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.
Veterans Day reminds us that both freedom and democracy sometimes command a heavy price. That we assign a particular day to recognise service to one’s country is a fitting testament to the men and women of the armed services of the USA, Great Britain and the Commonwealth beyond. To the fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters who did not return we salute you:
….You shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary you, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember you…..
[Paraphrased stanza taken from Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’]
Major War Memorials in the USA and Canada:
· The World War II Memorial in Washington DC honors the 16 million who served in the armed forces of the U.S., and the 405,399 Americans who died in service of their country;
· The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington DC honors those servicemen and women who restored freedom to South Korea;
· The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC –designed by Maya Lin – honors the men and women who served when their Nation called upon them;
· The USS Arizona Memorial at the Pearl Harbor National Monument in Oahu, Hawaii. The National Monument also includes sites on Ford Island: the USS Oklahoma Memorial, USS Utah Memorial, and several historic Battleship Row mooring quays and CPO bungalows;
· Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania was the site of the Civil War’s bloodiest battle with 51,000 casualties;
· Flight 93 National Memorial, Shanksville, Pennsylvania. On September 11th, 2001 the passengers and crew of United Flight 93 effectively became combatants in an undeclared war when they attempted to retake the aircraft which had been seized by terrorists;
· Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. A national shrine and America’s premier military cemetery.
· The federal National War Memorial in Ottawa is one of 6,293 war memorials in Canada. The memorial is dedicated to those Canadians who fought and died in the Great War, WWII and the Korean War.