This year marks the Centenary of the start of World War One, often called the “Great War” or the “War to End all Wars.” It’s a sobering occasion in Europe, where so many lives were lost and where so many enmities still exist or have been rekindled of late. With tensions ratcheting up in Ukraine and Eastern Europe once again, perhaps lessons learned from WWI can help de-escalate the situation.
The last surviving WWI veterans have passed, and a number of wars have come and gone in the wake of what was, at the time, just called “The World War.” Europe is gearing up to commemorate the deadly conflict, a tightrope walk for sure, without opening up new wounds. Lessons from such a devastating global event reverberate today.
I remember studying WWI in school, and being horrified and fascinated by trench warfare. The mannered etiquette mixed with the cataclysmic horror, the maiming and the sheer destruction following the festive, opulent Belle Époque period was all so incomprehensible. So, when my High School freshman came home talking about the subject, I was pleased that we could really dig into modern history topics, particularly this 100th anniversary year.
I lived in Northern France, near the Belgian border for a time, once a hotbed of battle, in a war where more than nine million combatants were killed. Many returned from WWI with what was then called “shell shock” and the atrocious results of mustard gas. Today, PTSD is rampant and the world is still trying to rid the globe of the poisonous gases that destroyed so many lives from 1914-1918. Many wars have followed what was to be The War to End all Wars and I want my son to understand the complex timeline that has led us to an era when war, and its aftermath, seem so commonplace.
My interest in WWI history evolved out of the still acute wounds from Vietnam, which were palpable when I was in school. Now, my son will learn about the antiquated trench warfare through the lens of 9/11, IED’s, and “the Surge.” I hope his inspiring teacher, and the subject, move him in a way that informs his future realities. This centennial anniversary may garner few headlines in the U.S., but perhaps looking back will help us move forward and forestall more carnage.
If you would like to visit battlefields or take part in commemorations, here are a few tips: The UK is home to many exhibits and events; 1914.org is a good place to start if you are planning a trip across the pond.
Major battlefield areas are often visited by pilgrims and tourists. Visiting western front battlefields along the 450 or so miles from the Belgian coast, through Flanders to the French border will surely be heavily trafficked this summer.
Throughout the major battle areas, memorials, museums, military cemeteries and battlefield remains can be visited. Many of these are public sites and accessible by foot or wheelchair. Some privately managed museums or battlefield sites have limited opening hours and may charge an entrance fee. The Ypres Salient in Belgium, and the Somme and Verdun battlefields in France are some of the busiest. There are public museums, hotels to suit all budgets, restaurants and well-marked battlefield routes.
Among the many commemorations and events, every household in Britain will be asked to turn out the lights at 11 p.m. on August 4, 2014 to mark the centenary of the First World War. If you are planning a trip to Europe this summer, you may want to be up to date on all that is planned.