The peace treaties ending the First World War could have been signed at any time of the year, in May or August say, but those warm clement months would never have been able to convey the true horrors of the battles that took place along Europe’s 700 km fractured front line – reaching from the north sea to the Swiss border. In French villages up and down the country masses are said and school children gather around memorials to the fallen to recount the history of how a generation of young men were wiped out to satisfy the lust of a Europe dominated by hereditary monarchies and the fallacy of territorial ambitions.
In the United Kingdom dignitaries, including the entire Royal Family, Prime Minister and leaders of the opposition gather at the Cenotaph to lay poppy wreaths and to lead the prayers to the fallen. In Belgium, one of the most moving services to remember the fallen, takes place under the Menin Gate in Ypres. It was from the Menin Gate leading towards the tiny village of Passchendaele, that soldiers marched to their death. To this day thousands of unnamed soldiers lie buried beneath the mud – killed by bullets, shrapnel, teargas or by just drowning whilst trying to reach the enemy. At 11.00 a.m., after all the speeches have been made and the prayers said, a hushed silence falls over the crowd, a bugle sounds out the simple, haunting notes of the last post, followed by a bag-piper playing Amazing Grace.
The weather on 11 November is invariable inclement with predictions of precipitations throughout the day. The rain may or may not fall over those attending the service. It will, inevitably be cold, damp and chilling with the occasional burst of sunshine lighting up in stark contrast the puddles between the cut stems of the summer corn. The wind will blow across the open landscape chilling a person to the bone. To walk along the battle fields around Passchendaele – indeed any field in Flanders at this time of the year – is to truly appreciate how treacherous the local geology of this landscape is. Flanders, being relatively flat, may look innocent enough. An excellent place to pitch a decisive, conclusive battle – but the innocence of the top soil hides the danger that lurks beneath: clay mud.
In the four years that the armies were glued to the ground in trenches of unimaginable horror it never occurred to the Generals, on either side, that the mud was for ever going to deny them a decisive victory, that the out-come would forever remain a stale-mate and that the land – formerly used for growing grains – between Ypres and Passchendaele would become one of the most lethal swamps in military history. Alongside the grassy patch of land leading up to the Menin Gate hundreds of thousands of poppies are planted into the ground to commemorate those who died. The rain water, seeping into the drains alongside the cobbled road underneath the Menin Gate turns blood red from the red die of the poppies as if, on this their remembrance day, the blood of the fallen will once again wash into the Ypres Salient, as it did all those years ago. Written on each of those poppies, whose die turns the rain water red under the Menin Gate, is this simple message:
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
we will remember them.
And, remember them we do on 11th November. But what about the rest of the year? What about in May when the darling buds turn the landscape green? What about in August when Europeans go on holiday to enjoy the summer sun? What about in February when snow covers the ground and those who can will head to the mountains to go skiing? What about when the economy is in the doldrums, as it is now ,and there is little growth and economic prosperity? How easy it is to then forget the fallen of both world wars.
In May, in August, in February, at times of economic recession – their ghost will lie dormant and forgotten, allowed only to emerge once a year with the onset of the November mists and rain. Buried beneath the mud of Flanders hundreds of British, Commonwealth and German soldiers lie so that Europe could no longer be dominated by one nation state, so that hereditary monarchies could no longer rule Europe’s destinies, so that the nation states would talk to one another and never act in splendid isolationism.
Those in Europe who rely on jingoistic statements (based on ignorance not fact) about the need to leave the EU do not honour the dead. Those who claim the nation state would be better out of the EU rather than in do not honour the fallen. Those who look to fracture the EU rather than engage in meaningful discussion from within fail to appreciate why exactly it was those young men died in the trenches. It was the nationalistic card in both World Wars, playing to the sentiment of the uninformed, that brought Europe to its knees. Twice. Let us hope it never does so again. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. To do true justice to those who died in both world wars let us remember their sacrifice throughout the year, in good times and in bad.