Friday, November 14, 2014

Remembering WWI in Europe

Growing up in the United States, you learn throughout your childhood about World War II. I’ve done a class project that required me to speak to a living witness of the war. I’ve read countless books and have seen numerous movies romanticizing The Greatest Generation. I’ve tried for countless hours without avail to make sense of the horrors of the Holocaust. I’ve memorized battle maps and names of WWII generals.

WWII was arguably the most influential war of recent times. It changed everything, and we still see its effects. But WWII couldn’t have happened had WWI not have happened. However, I have spent much less time learning about the First World War. I remember reading All Quiet on the Western Front in a high school history class. I remember spending just one lesson of a collegiate WWII class learning about WWI. I know a little about trench warfare and the introduction of modern weaponry. But that’s about it.
The Nov. 11 Memorial Ceremony at Menin Gate
draws thousands of visitors every year.

This isn’t exactly shocking. Like other countries, the United States educates its youth about the historical events that shaped its people. While we lost thousands of young people in WWI, it was nothing compared the American deaths in WWII. The United States entered WWI three years after the fighting had begun, and less than a year before it would end. Therefore, most Americans felt the destruction for a shorter period of time than the other Allied powers.

While one can’t generalize that WWI was “worse,” for Europeans, they were involved in the fighting much longer than Americans. The war started and ended in Europe. Millions of soldiers and civilians were killed in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. While America arose out of World War I as a budding superpower, the entire map of Europe was redrawn, power was redistributed, and millions of families were never the same.

Knowing all of this before moving to Belgium, I was still amazed and impressed by the respect paid here for those who lost their lives during WWI. There are memorials, museums and cemeteries everywhere. Whether you’re in a big city like Antwerp or in the Flemish countryside, you’ll pass dozens of WWI graveyards. They include the graves of not only Belgian soldiers, but other allies and German soldiers as well. The cemeteries are maintained beautifully. The graves look brand new and the landscapes are always fresh and green. Locals even “adopt,” graves for upkeep, despite having no direct relation to the deceased.

November 11 is a very poignant day for remembering WWI, as the war ended that day nearly a century ago. I was lucky enough to attend the Menin Gate Memorial Ceremony in Ypres, Belgium, which draws large crowds every November 11. The ceremony is a tradition that actually takes place every single night. Think about that. Every night service members from the area proceed through the street into the Menin Gate, to honor those who have fallen almost 100 years ago. On November 11 however, the ceremony also includes prominent politicians, nobility from around Europe, and crowds of people from all over the world.

Procession at Menin Gate Memorial Ceremony
The procession is completed, speeches and prayers are given, the bagpipes are played and much more. I will never forget the haunting chanting, “We will remember them. We will remember them.” It was absolutely beautiful.
What makes all of this so special is that WWI ended almost 100 years ago, and all the veterans have passed away. This means that thousands of Belgians and other Europeans go out of their way to honor a generation that is entirely gone. The majority of today’s young people have never met a WWI vet, but still appreciate their services and honor them out of tradition. It’s not just Belgians either. During weekend trips to England, the Netherlands and Germany, I saw the same graveyards and memorials.

It’s poignant as well to be able to stand on the actual battlefields themselves. There are numerous historical sites that are still provincial and agricultural. Some fields look exactly as you’d imagine them to look during WWI. To this day, farmers still find old boots and army helmets in their land.

I have never experienced such mourning and honor for the veterans of WWI. It is truly magnificent. While the history of it is extremely interesting, what I’ve learned the most from this is respect and remembrance. I hope we all can do the same for the next generations of veterans once they leave us completely.

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