Sunday dawned sunny and brisk here, one of those sharp-shadowed November days when the light accentuates every ridge of bark and edge of brick like a finely detailed etching. I bundled up in multiple layers and headed downtown for our city’s annual Veteran’s Day parade, not out of habit, but because this was no ordinary November 11. It marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, and I wanted to be present.
For the past few years years, I have been working on a novel set in the Great War, in 1915, and my research has given me a deep respect for the tremendous sacrifices made during that horrific conflagration, as well as for the ways in which the Treaty of Versailles that redrew post-war boundaries on three continents shaped so many of the geopolitical conflicts that we face today.
Four summers ago, Al and I traveled to Europe so that I could gain a stronger sense of place for my novel. We walked overgrown trenches, witnessed corroded but still live munitions that continue to emerge from Belgian soil (the so-called Iron Harvest), paid respects to row upon row of white grave markers in military cemeteries, discovered delicate red-orange poppies waving in Flanders Fields. They flourish in old battlefields because they favor earth that has been disturbed.
And the earth was disturbed, shredded, pounded to a muddy, barren pulp. Millions upon millions died defending, gaining, losing, regaining mere yards of turf between the trenches. In the end, the so-called peace treaty for the War to End All Wars imposed such economic hardship on Germany for its aggression that Teutonic desire for revenge set the stage for World War II.
I thought about all this as I watched the bag piper stride beneath an archway made of a huge American flag held up by two opposing fire truck ladders, as a handful of aging Marines in their red jackets and caps passed me carrying the Stars and Stripes, as units of JROTC high school students marched by in uniforms, as police rumbled past on motorcycles. The crowd was thin but respectful. A little girl handed me an American flag to wave. My fingers went numb every time I took a picture, because it was just that kind of chilly New England fall day.
The parade culminated at a memorial to World War I veterans that marks one of the entry points to the city’s downtown. I had passed it many times over the years, but never actually entered—a semi-circular granite wall engraved with the names of battles where Americans died in the War’s last year, surrounding a modest plaza with a flagpole. The mayor spoke of local residents who served and died in the War. He drew parallels between then and now and the divisive, dangerous politics of our times. Other city officials made a few remarks and laid a red-white-and-blue wreath at the flagpole’s base. A soldier read In Flanders Fields by John McCrae.
When we were in Belgium, we visited the site of the field dressing station where Lieutenant Colonel McCrae, a Canadian surgeon, artist and poet, saved soldier’s lives and wrote his famous memorial lines. That is where we found the poppies, still growing. They were wild, scattered amidst the high grass, smaller than I had expected.
McCrae’s poem ends thus: “If ye break faith with us who die | We shall not sleep, though poppies grow | In Flanders Fields.” On this centennial, with so much at risk in the world, I hope and pray that we can remember the somber lessons of World War I, the tremendous sacrifice of life, the hardships and grief and loss, and find our way through this difficult time to true and lasting global trust and cooperation for the betterment of all. Nothing less than the future of our planet hangs in the balance.