graves in a field

Echoes of World War I

On November 11, 1918, the First World War ended after an unprecedented loss of human life. The words that memorialize the dead honor their sacrifices and reveal the horrors they endured.

Located in near Ieper, Belgium, Tyne Cot Cemetery holds nearly 12,000 graves of World War I soldiers who fought for Great Britain.
Photograph by Michael St Maur Sheil, Western Front Photography/Mary Evans

Whenever I’m treading on European soil, there is always a very real chance that the remains of some distant relative might lie underfoot. My family hails from England and Spain, and the history of war on the continent has not spared either branch. This possibility strengthens when visiting places like Thiepval, Vimy, Beaumont-Hamel, or Ypres, four towns—three of them French and the other Belgian—settings of one of the bloodiest wars humanity has ever fought: the First World War, which decimated Europe from 1914 to 1918.

It is now mid-July, and I am visiting northern France. A cloudy day is hiding the summer sun from the region. A few months from now, one hundred years will have passed since the end of World War I, but its memory is a constant presence here. Commemorative monuments can be found in just about every French or Belgian town. Their presence reminds me of my childhood and the walks I took with my grandmother in England. I would try to mirror her respect for the monuments, memorials, and remembrance plaques we encountered in every English village. She often reminded me that there was an uncle she never knew because he was killed in 1918 when she was just a baby.

The Great War started in 1914, brought on by the growing economic rivalry and the fight for hegemony of the main European powers. The aggressive foreign policy of the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires led to a build-up of their own and their potential rival’s armies. The ongoing tensions in the Balkans eventually led to the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on June 28, 1914. A chain-reaction of war declarations in August of that same year led to the formation of two blocks: the Allies (France, Russia, Great Britain, Serbia, Italy and—eventually—the United States) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, the Ottoman Empires, and Bulgaria). The first truly modern war left more dead than any other previous European conflict: more than 18 million casualties in four years. It seems very few families could have escaped the touch of war’s horror. (See also: The United States Enters World War I.)

Etched in Stone

The first place I visit is Thiepval, a tiny village in the Picardy region of France, surrounded by rolling fields, woods, and bucolic brooks. I find myself staring hypnotically at the names lining the inside of the enormous arch that is the centerpiece of the local memorial. They are the names of the 72,000 men who breathed their last in these fields, 72,000 British and South African soldiers, during the seemingly endless (and ultimately pointless) six-month Battle of the Somme in 1916. Identification of their bodies was impossible, so these unfortunate fighters rest together under this colossal tombstone.

And while the marker gives their names, a little cemetery next to it holds the bodies of 300 British soldiers who lost both their lives and their identities. Their bodies are under identical headstones with identical inscriptions: “A soldier of the Great War/Known unto God.” This graveyard has a twin burial ground next to it with the bodies of 300 French soldiers, marked by crosses bearing a single word: Inconnu (“Unknown”). Their uniforms were all that signified their nationality.

While apprehensively walking past the graves, I can’t help thinking that if those lying there came back to life, they would find the battlefield unrecognizable. It’s somewhat ironic that the war that took their lives and destroyed the landscape gave birth to these reverential memorials surrounded by peaceful, green countryside. Honoring the memory of these soldiers, their austerity couldn’t be more removed from the final visions of their dying moments: bombed-out trenches filled with mud and sown with the bodies of comrades and foes.

The words cut into the headstones of unknown British soldiers in the Thiepval cemetery came from Rudyard Kipling, a poet with a firm belief in be Great Britain’s providential role in the world. It was also Kipling who chose the inscription I keep finding on other different memorials: “Their name liveth for evermore.” The words come from scripture, Ecclesiasticus 44:14. Kipling, who had lost a son in the war, wanted to use the full passage: “Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name liveth for evermore,” but the Imperial War Graves Commission removed the first sentence. Was it because they found it too ironic to mention burials “in peace” bearing in mind the nature of the deaths? Probably, but the members of the Commission had another, more immediate, concern in mind: They thought it would be too easy to add an “s” to peace, making it sound like “pieces,” in what would’ve been in poor taste for many despite being a much more realistic description of the fate of the thousands during the war.

Words of the Poets

While bombs, planes, tanks, and trenches left their mark on the European landscape, the war itself made a mark on our language. “No-Man’s Land” and “Trench Warfare” are two of the expressions born in the Great War that are still in use (often metaphorically, applied to sports or politics.) The soldiers of the Great War stood out for many reasons, one of the most notable was that the vast majority could read and write. Many had a literary background. (See also: The Hidden Art of World War I.)

While I spend a few days travelling around the towns that witnessed of all that destruction, I have as my companion a veteran who was here a hundred years ago: Wilfred Owen, one of the men known in Britain as the “War Poets.” Along with Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves, he used poetry to make his contemporaries aware of the raw horror that they had all found in battle. Of these four poets, Owen was the only one to never return home. His tomb, in the communal cemetery of Ors, France (about 60 miles from Lille).

Owen’s poems lie in stark contrast to the epitaphs on many of the memorials. And this is one of the concerns that accompany me in my route. The words on the monuments seems to consider death on the battlefield as honorable, necessary, and perhaps glorious. Owen’s verses rebut these notions, especially the last lines of his poem “Dulce et decorum est.”

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

I read these verses under the shadow of one of the monuments that does seem to echo Owen’s feelings: the Vimy Memorial. There, a statue of a grieving woman wearing a flowing cloak stands solemn and tired. Known as “Canada Bereft,” she stands for the nation as it mourned the loss of its children to combat. I can’t help feeling a certain bitterness when I again find in this monument the hollow words talking about country, glory or honor, the common denominator of all the memorials commemorating massacres.

Fields of Red

In Britain November 11, the day the First World War ended, is Remembrance Day, when British citizens honor all soldiers who died serving their country. Many consider it a patriotic, sacred duty to wear an artificial poppy as an homage to the fallen. The poppy’s revered status is partly due to the words of another World War I poet: John McCrae. Canadian soldier and physician, he wrote what is probably the best-known poem about the Great War: “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.

The poppies are still mourning in the Flanders fields and in neighboring Hauts-de-France (a French region including what used to be Picardy.) Paper and plastic flowers are strewn at the feet of every memorial in Britain.

There are also hundreds of poppies in Ypres, the Belgian city that was nearly obliterated by the war and where the Germans first used chemical weapons against their enemies. A commemorative monument known as the Menin Door holds a ceremony at eight o’clock every evening to remember the thousands of fallen soldiers whose bodies were never recovered. At eight, I listen in silence as a bugle call sounds for the dead. Immediately afterwards, a group of 12-year-old students from Sweyne Park School, in Essex, lay a wreath made with the long-lasting poppies. They come with poetic verses from “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon, an Englishman who served with the Red Cross during war:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Those words arouse a certain sadness. The idea of eternal youth might be desirable to some, but Binyon’s words seem cold comfort to me given the horrific circumstances. Were the young men killed here—many of them not yet 20—willing to pay such a high price to avoid growing old?

Explaining the Unexplainable

In all my stops I find many school buses. In Beaumont-Hamel, one of the key locations from the Battle of the Somme, there are three groups of students, two from England and one from Scotland. Observing the teachers trying to herd their pupils, I find it difficult to imagine how anyone could explain this battle to them. Even the word “battle” is misleading. A battle is not something that lasts nearly five months (from July 1 to November 18, 1916).

It is also called “the Somme Offensive,” a name I find ironically fitting. There is indeed something deeply offensive in sending wave after wave of men to the certain death delivered by German machine guns. In the first 24 hours of the battle, more than 19,000 Commonwealth soldiers died. The British tactic of bombing German positions for several days before sending the infantry to attack enemy lines was a disaster. The German trenches proved to be deeper and sturdier than assumed by the British high command. When the bombing stopped, the Germans had time to position their machine guns and mow down the soldiers as they slowly advanced towards them.

During the ensuing months, Field Marshall Douglas Haig insisted on repeating exactly the same strategy, which produced the same horrific outcomes. Over a million soldiers under his command were wounded or killed, a disastrous result that truly earned him the nickname of the “Butcher of the Somme.”

Trying to place myself in the situation of one of these young men, I wonder why they didn’t rebel. One of the answers that comes to mind is that words, in a certain sense, do speak louder than bombs. Particularly when they are used to convince the soldier’s own families and social environment to act as pressure groups to guarantee that these young men went (or returned) to the front.

In the magnificent war museum in the village of Péronne, there are various posters that were used in Britain during the war. They play exactly the right emotional keys. I am particularly impressed by one depicting a father at home with his son and daughter. The girl asks: “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?”. The father’s gloomy gaze seems to indicate that the answer would be “not much.” I mentally help out the speechless father by telling the girl that, had her father fought in the war, odds would be stacked against her ever being born.

Voices from the Trenches

Despite the success of pro-war propaganda, voices of dissent arose from the trenches. One of the most notorious was Siegfried Sassoon. He was one of the first to enlist—e even before the war started—and his first poems still show a romantic, idealized vision of a soldier’s duty. The crude reality he found in France soon stained his innocence with blood and mud. After just a few months, he was horrified by the death and inhumanity he saw all around him. In his works he also criticized the attitude of his fellow citizens back home, a clear example of which is in his poem “Glory of Women,” written in 1917:

You love us when we're heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace.

You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we're killed.

The feeling of rage that was welling up inside Sassoon kept on growing with every fallen comrade he saw die in the mud. In what became a personal crusade against war, the poet started to consider the message that the beleaguered pacifists like Bertrand Russell (whom he met while on leave) had been trying to spread. When the time came to return to the front, Sassoon decided that he had had enough. He wrote a letter titled “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration” and sent it to the press. It was eventually read in Parliament, where its antiwar tone did not garner him many sympathies. The text ended by saying:

“I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.”

In his time in the front, Sassoon had earned the nickname “Mad Jack” due to his absolute disdain for his own safety. In 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross for the bravery displayed when he spent hours bringing back the dead and the wounded from No-Man’s Land while still under heavy enemy fire. He was also recommended for the Victoria Cross, the highest British military distinction, after he captured a German trench single-handedly. But after he published his passionate plea against the futility of the war he was fighting, not even his heroic deeds seemed enough to save him from facing a court-martial. It took the intervention of another poet, Robert Graves, to convince the authorities that Sassoon wasn’t in full use of his mental faculties when he wrote the letter, and that he should be hospitalized and not put on trial.

Sassoon was sent to a military hospital in Craiglockhart, near Edinburg. This move would prove to be providential for Owen, who was in that same hospital, being treated for shell-shock. The friendship he would establish with this other soldier-poet would allow him to fully consolidate his own poetic voice, thanks to Sassoon’s advice and example. Even though they were both fully aware of the mindless brutality awaiting them in France, they both went back to the front. They continued to abhor war and all it stood for, but their sense of duty and -particularly- their solidarity with their comrades and the wish to act as heralds of a doomed youth led them to jump back into the fire.

Sassoon was promoted to lieutenant before suffering a head wound and being sent back to Britain again. Owen would not be so lucky. He died a week before the guns finally fell silent. His friend’s efforts would be crucial in making his poetry live for evermore.

A Great War's Ending

When the war ended, on November 11, 1918, many of those who had fought in it hoped that there would at last be a sincere and critical appraisal of the torment they had undergone. That those four endless years of fire, blood and destruction would be the last chapter in the story of human conflict. Perhaps now the world would understand the recklessness of combining the emotions stirred by nationalism with the capacity of destruction industrialism had brought to the battlefield.

But it was not to be.

In Comines-Warneton, Belgium, there is a modest memorial that is different from all the other ones I’ve encountered. Its purpose is not to remember the dead. Quite the contrary, in fact. It is the celebration of the little glimmer of hope that shone on Christmas Day, 1914, when the soldiers of the two enemy trenches ignored the allegiance to their uniforms to exchange gifts, sing together and play a game of soccer. Many of them had never met their enemies face to face. When they did, they couldn’t help questioning the motivations they had been given for wanting them dead. The military high commands, fearful of what this precedent would entail, forbade any kind of future spontaneous truces.

While I look at the scarves and footballs that decorate the monument that the European Football Federation erected here, I can’t help praying—to whom I don’t exactly know—that someday the rhetoric of war will be something I’ll only find in the words of the past… or in football matches.

Journalist, podcaster, and radio personality, Victor Lloret Blackburn is the former deputy editor of National Geographic History magazine.

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