Memorial Day is Monday, May 28th, 2012. It’s a uniquely American holiday and this will be the 144th such observance since the first one in 1865, after our Civil War ended.
A friend emailed me about a recent visit to Ypres, Belgium that included stops at nearby WWI sites. I also visited some of these when I was there in 2009.
Now seems a good time to write an essay on the topic, and I apologize for writing about a European location on the eve of an American holiday that strives to remember all our war dead.
There may no longer be anyone alive who fought in that war, and not many more who lived through it otherwise, but I don’t think it matters which war we remember when Memorial Day rolls around. For me, World War I is just the most recent example of the horrific, eternal stupidity of this activity, although every war, before and since, was accompanied by advances in medicine for saving lives and those advances barely keep pace with the ‘improvements’ in our capabilities for killing each other.
But back to Belgium.
In Ypres (Ieper is the Flemish name), there is a multi-media WWI museum, behind the cloth hall in the town center, complete with horrifying sound effects and narration in addition to the photographs and artifacts. It is named, appropriately enough, In Flanders Fields and I just saw where it will reopen in a couple of weeks with new exhibits in preparation for the centennial observance of the war in 2014-2018.
Also in the town, a daily Last Post (the British equivalent of Taps) ceremony is held to commemorate British and other Commonwealth (British Empire) war dead at the Menin Gate memorial just a few steps from the town square. The ceremony begins at 6pm and includes laying of a wreath which can be examined after the ceremony ends. Other wreaths and flowers from recent ceremonies are laid around the Gate; reading the attached cards is a sobering experience.
The Menin Gate’s walls hold the names of almost 55,000 dead who were either never found or never identified, but there was not enough room to add more. Almost 35,000 additional dead were so categorized and their names are inscribed at nearby Tyne Cot cemetery. Americans probably won’t recognize this name because it holds Commonwealth war dead and possibly also because WWI is so far back in time that even our parents and grandparents have no memory of that war, unless those grandparents or their families were living in Europe during that time. There are several American military cemeteries in Europe for WWI dead, should you want to see them.
Tyne Cot Cemetery is located less than 6 miles from Ieper, the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in the world, though all the dead at Tyne Cot are from the First War. Almost 12,000 are buried here. To give this some perspective for any U.S. readers, the American military cemetery in Normandy at Colleville-sur-Mer is the final resting place of around 9,400 American soldiers from WWII and the American cemetery at St Avold in Lorraine, France has the graves of almost 10,500 of our dead from that war. Another difference is the astounding number of unidentified in each. Seventy percent of those in Tyne Cot are unidentified, compared to sixteen percent at Colleville-sur-Mer.
Astoundingly, the cemetery at Tyne Cot is only about 8.6 acres, where Colleville-sur-Mer, with 1500 fewer graves, covers more than 170 acres. Looking at the photograph, the saturation of Tyne Cot’s ground with headstones mimics the close quarters of the slaughter itself.
Much of the reason for the almost unimaginable numbers of dead lies not just in the sheer number of casualties and the rate at which they were killed, but in the condition of the battlefields (deep, deep mud in and around the closely spaced trenches) and in the horrific disparity between the ‘new’ technology of that war compared with the ‘old’ tools used, inneffectively, to fight it. It made for thousands upon thousands of missing and thousands upon thousands more who, when found, were not whole. The battle areas were so compact that areas of ground were constantly being taken by one side, only to be retaken almost immediately by the other. One more element of this close combat – one which never occurred to me until I read it – was the shelling of cemeteries during the war. Given the tight geographics of the war in Europe, this may have been more common in this war than in others. whether it was intentional or not scarcely matters.
I am also struck by the interactive Google map of WWI military cemeteries around Ypres. Look at the map on the web page. To me, it looks like a sickeningly vast pile of poker chips, accumulated by an incredibly skillful player.
Some final editorializing.
We continue to wage war for any, every and no reason. We humans continue to create piles of bodies of soldiers and civilians and justify the numbers against some stupid idea of national necessity, protection, pre-emption (just another euphemism for war), or for other gain.
I get the feeling, especially when watching news about robotic drones, that some war-machine nitwit somewhere thinks that it’s OK to wage war and invade other countries if we can figure out a way to do so without killing our own side. This “military intelligence” (remember what Rocket J Squirrel had to say about that term?) is insane and wrong and, ultimately, counter-productive. Why does anyone seriously assume that military force will permanently subdue any people when those applying the force also believe that they themselves could never be dominated in that way? Stupid stupid stupid.
When will we ever learn? And will we ever learn?