November 11, nineteen short days ago, marked the one-hundred year anniversary of the end of World War One. Before they had numbers, this was “The Great War”. The “War to end all Wars”.
There is barely a piece of 20th or 21st century history, which cannot be traced back to it.
International Communism was borne of the Great War, without which there would have been no cold war, no Korean War, no war in Vietnam. The killing fields of Cambodia would have remained mere rice fields. The spiritual descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of capitalism would be running all of China, instead of only Taiwan.
The current proportions of the Middle East arose from the Great War. While the region’s tribal alliances and religious strife is nothing new, those conditions would have taken a different form, had it not been for those boundaries.
World War II, an apocalypse which left more dead, wounded or missing than any conflict in world history, was little more than the Great War, part II. A Marshall of France, on reading the Versailles Treaty formally ending WWI, said “This isn’t peace. This is a cease-fire that will last for 20 years”. He was off, by about 36 days.
I’ve long believed that we can’t be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, we can’t know where we want our nation to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been. It’s one of the principle reasons for examining history. It’s why I think something wonderful happened five years ago, and I don’t think many of us heard about it.
Over the summer of 2013, more than 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited seventy battlefields of the Great War. Ypres. Passchendaele. Verdun. The Somme. This was a singular event. Never before had the Commonwealth War Graves Commission permitted the excavation of these battlefields.
All over Northern France and Belgium, the region known as “Flanders”. There these children collected samples of the sacred soil of those fields of conflict.
The soil from those battlefields was placed in 70 WWI-style burlap sandbags, each stenciled with a red poppy, where it came from, and the dates. Those sandbags began their journey with a solemn Armistice Day ceremony at the Menin Gate of Ypres, that memorial to the 56,395 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought and died on the Ypres salient of the Great War, and whose bodies were never found or identified.
The sacred soil of Flanders Fields transported to London aboard the Belgian Navy frigate Louisa Marie, and installed with great care at Wellington Barracks, the central London home of the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards.
There the soil of the Great War would nourish and support a garden, inscribed with the words of Doctor John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields”. Ready for the following year, a solemn remembrance of the centenary of the War to end all Wars.
That day, December 1, 2013, was for the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden, the first full day of forever. I cannot think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and installed it in that garden.
It is now for that posterity to keep our history alive, and never to let it fade, into some sepia-toned and forgotten past.