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France, Britain Remember End to Bloody World War

Soldiers return home to New York City, ca. 1919. (National Archives)

Updated Nov. 11, 2011:

Because their casualties from World War I so overwhelm those suffered by U.S. forces in their 20 months in the conflict, many European nations observe with more solemnity and ceremony the Nov. 11 Armistice Day anniversary.

But amid the ceremonies in Britain, France, Belgium and several Commonwealth nations, there was one change announced this year. President Nicolas Sarkozy said that henceforth Nov. 11 would be observed in honor of those who died in all of France’s wars.

And, of course, Friday’s observances come as Europe is engulfed in its worst political crisis since the end of World War II. Indeed, the entire European unification project, aimed at ending European wars that nearly destroyed Europe and now symbolized in the common Euro currency shared by 17 nations, is in some jeopardy.

The month of November has already seen yet even more emergency meetings and two changes of government in the Eurozone — and probably at least one more after Spanish elections at the end of the month.

Original post from Nov. 11, 2010:
Today in France and on Sunday in Britain — in Paris and London and in countless rural villages– presidents and royals, farmers and shopkeepers will gather at memorials and pay tribute to the millions killed in a war that ended nearly a century ago.

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.

In the weeks before Armistice Day, NewsHour viewers may have noticed in video clips of the British House of Commons all the members wearing red poppies on their lapels. 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.

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