on December 1, 2007
World War I devastated Europe. It wiped out whole villages, whole generations. It was the "Great War" yielding suffering so horrible and futile that men were never going to pick up arms again. Of course, they did, and WWI became just a sad prelude to WWII. While I believe America played a decisive part in ending this particular European conflict, the US did not enter until late in the game. So when we study history, we do not concentrate as much on the Old World's many tangled alliances, the old conflicts that caused such a heinous domino-effect of war declarations at the beginning of the 20th century and allowed a whole continent to fall into chaotic darkness. In other words, we do not feel the pain of loss as deeply, so we do not remember as well. Anyway, when I moved to England I couldn't help but notice all of the poppies that began to appear on people's lapels in November. Old men, women, and children. News presenters, actors, and teachers. The Queen, princes and princessess. Everywhere I looked. Red paper like splashes of blood through Remembrance Sunday. It was then I first read---as in REALLY read---the poem called "In Flanders' Fields" by Canadian officer John McCrae. He wrote it as a major. He died as a lieutenant colonel an ocean away from his home. He still calls from his grave to the Commonwealth: "If ye break faith with us who diewe shall not sleep, though poppies growin Flander's Fields." I wanted to honor the past by beginning to understand it more... by remembering. My family and I made a special trip to a city that was a focal point for all this waste, loss, and despair. After all, when the opposing forces entrenched themselves along their lines for battle, Ieper was completely destroyed... reduced to rubble. In three monumental clashes here, more than 70,000 lost their lives. That is more American soldiers than died in Vietnam! It was hard for me to conceive of this as the town itself has been rebuilt as it used to look... as if blood was never soaked into its soil. The reconstructed cloth hall near the Gothic-style cathedral houses the excellent In Flanders' Fields Museum. This is a great starting point, so we found parking and paid the 7.50 Euro entry fee per adult. How was the museum? Haunting. There is a looping soundtrack that begins with the British song "Will Ye Go to Flanders", punctuated with the commentary of European soldiers speaking with different accents, in different languages. This music follows you around as you read the exhibits, trying to make sense of all those dead boys. Afterwards, we drove to Tyne Cot Cemetery where we walked amongst the gravestones of the Commonwealth. Each showed the country of the soldier's origin... a multitude of represented lands stretching across the Empire. We stood with heads bowed in this still place, the weight of silence breaking a mother's heart... in Flanders' Fields.
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