I like November 11th because it is a public holiday in Poland to celebrate Independence Day as well as Remembrance Day in the UK (Armistice Day or Poppy Day elsewhere). Both are good reasons to celebrate & remember. It was the same event that gave rise to both, the end of the first world war.
On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 the guns of Europe fell silent. After four years of the most bitter and devastating fighting, The Great War was finally over. The Armistice was signed at 5am in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiegne, France on November 11, 1918. Six hours later, at 11am, the war ended. As if to emphasize the stupidity of war, this came two minutes too late for private George Lawrence Price (Regimental Number: 256265), a Canadian soldier who is traditionally recognized as being the last soldier killed during the First World War. On the 11th of November, Price was part of an advance to take the small village of Havre. After crossing the Canal du Centre in Ville-sur-Haine under German machine gun fire, Price and his patrol moved toward a row of houses intent on pursuing the machine gunner who had harassed their crossing of the canal. The patrol had entered the house they had thought the shooting had come from but found the Germans had exited through the back door as they entered the front. They then pursued into the house next door and again found it empty. George Price was fatally shot in the region of his heart by a German sniper as he stepped out of the house into the street at 10:58 AM November 11th 1918, just two minutes before the armistice ceasefire that ended the war went into effect at 11:00 AM.
40 million people died as a result of WWI. The war caused the disintegration of four empires: the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and Russian. Germany lost its colonial empire and states such as Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Yugoslavia gained independence. The cost of waging the war set the stage for the breakup of the British Empire as well and left France devastated for more than a generation.
As ever though, this great hardship did spawn some fabulous works of art, in this case poetry. Poems that I have remembered ever since school days and that never cease to touch me more than most other poetry or verse ever has. Perhaps because they experienced this madness first hand.
Base Details, by Siegfried “Mad Jack” Sassoon
If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour.
‘Poor young chap,’ I’d say-‘
I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.
Poems written by Sassoon at the start of the First World War contrast greatly in style to his later work. Driven by anger and frustration at the conduct of the war, Sassoon developed a beautiful style in which to describe the horror and appalling nature of the ongoing conflict. Sassoon continued to stir the emotions and consciences of his countrymen long after the guns fell silent.
In Flanders Fields, by John MacRae
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.
Outside a dressing station near Ypres in 1915, John McCrae, a surgeon in the Canadian Army, wrote of the scenes around him. Dissatisfied, he tore the poem from his notebook and returned to his duties. A fellow officer discovered the poem in the mud and sent a copy to the press. Recited in Remembrance services throughout the world, this is one of the most memorable and moving poems of the Great War. John McCrae died in 1918.
Anthem for Doomed Youth, by Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds
Perhaps the most famous of the war poets, Wilfred Owen was born in Shropshire in 1893, and began writing poetry as a boy. After teaching English in France for a while he joined the Manchester Regiment and fought at the Somme where he contracted trench fever. While recuperating in Scotland, Owen met Siegfried Sassoon who encouraged his writing (and even helped with the poem above). Owen returned to the fighting and was decorated for his actions, but was tragically killed in the last week of the war.