Nov. 11 Marks Day of Remembrance on Both Sides of Atlantic


French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (center) and French Junior Minister for Veterans Kader Arif (second from left) lay a wreath at an Armistice Day ceremony in Rethondes, France. Photo by Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images.

As they have for 93 previous years, Europeans paused on Nov. 11, and remembered the end of World War I, the conflict that changed their countries forever.

This year the Armistice and Remembrance Day ceremonies coincided with political and financial dramas from Britain to Greece. Amid deepening recessions, rising unemployment and massive public debt, European leaders are trying to hold together the project of integration and unification begun after World War II and which was designed to prevent yet another European catastrophe.

The biggest ceremonies were held in the United Kingdom, France and Belgium. Those three countries alone lost more than two million soldiers and civilians in a conflict that ran from 1914 to 1918. The defeated nations of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires suffered more than seven million dead.

But this also has been a year when ordinary Americans, generations removed from a war that barely touched this country, shared in its cultural legacy. The war produced considerable poetry and literature, on both sides of the Atlantic, including a 1982 British novel about a boy and his horse during those years. The stage production of “War Horse,” performed with much emotion in London’s West End and on Broadway, was transformed this year into a popular movie by Steven Spielberg. In Britain, notable as an animal-loving nation, the book, play and movie were all reminders of another of the war’s devastating tolls: of one million horses pressed into service from the British Isles to the continent during World War I, only 62,000 returned.

On the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I officially ended. What has morphed into Veterans Day here is still remembered in parts of Europe as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. It marks the conclusion of a four-year slaughter that consumed more than 7 million British, French, Russian, Italian, German and Austro-Hungarian empire soldiers in combat and killed or wounded millions more civilians. In a conflict that the United States entered in its last 19 months, some 116,000 American “dough boys” were killed in action, more than double the number who died in ten years in Vietnam.

But for most Americans, World War I is a blip, or what the British historian Niall Ferguson called “a historical void.” As the late soldier-diplomat Vernon Walters once told me, while at West Point before World War II, when Europeans referred to The War, they meant World War I, whereas West Pointers were still referring to the Civil War.

In his book, “The Pity of War,” Ferguson speculates that the conflict became a “forgotten war” for Americans because they entered it so late and suffered far fewer casualties. But he goes on the argue that it was decisive for the United States, bringing it into world affairs in a more prominent way, even though it tried to revert to isolationism through the 1920s and 30s.

For the Europeans, the war ended an old order and opened the door to decades of chaos and war, and the division of the continent that continued until the end of the Cold War. Empires and dynasties that had existed since Charlemagne came apart in weeks amid military stalemate and domestic revolution.

Red poppies, worn on lapels, are a common sight on Armistice Day. In Flanders and also at Gallipoli, the churn of combat provided sunlight for the seeds of wild red poppy plants to bloom more profusely than ever. In a surreal montage of life and death, those battlefields were covered with vast poppy growths. After the war, British veterans’ groups began selling poppies to raise money for the care of their wounded comrades, and the flower became a symbol in Britain and its dominions in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which all had suffered heavy casualties. In Britain on Remembrance Sunday, wreaths of red poppies will be placed on war memorials.

As Ferguson noted, the war also produced some of the 20th century’s most widely read and recited literature and poetry. And the one most recited on November 11, especially in Canada, was written in 1915 by a Canadian doctor and Army officer, John McCrae and titled “In Flanders Fields”:

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.