World War I Battlefields: Haunting War Cemeteries Send Powerful Message
The war cemeteries of the Western Front are as well-maintained as if they had been built this year. Their poignant message of peace is equally fresh.
World War I ended 89 years ago in November 1918. Only a handful of veterans are still alive and family memories of the uncles, fathers and grandfathers who fought are fading fast.
But the cemeteries and war memorials of France and Belgium, where much of the worst fighting took place, remain as pristine and well-tended as if they had been built this year, silently conveying a powerful message to anyone who visits them.
"The Great War," as it was known until World War II broke out, haunted the last century and is etched into Europe's consciousness as a reminder of the cost and futility of war. The courage with which the soldiers walked into machine gun fire baffles modern generations.
It was the world's first modern, mechanized war, but the people who fought it -- millions of them volunteers -- seem alien today in terms of their readiness for suffering and self-sacrifice. That might explain the lingering fascination with the conflict.
The small British cemeteries that dot the undulating fields here are no less poignant. Some of them contain just a few dozen headstones, either named or with the inscription "A Soldier of the Great War" carved on them.
The grass is immaculately mown; red, white and orange flowers cast their delicate shadows against the headstones. The cemeteries are everywhere -- in the middle of fields, hidden in little woods, by the side of country roads.
Only the rustling of wind in the trees and the occasional sounds of tractors can be heard. The sense of peace is all the more striking because tens of thousands of British soldiers walked slowly to their deaths across these fields on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Over the Top to their Deaths
They were ordered to march slowly, in wave upon wave across an 18-mile front: the British commanders were convinced that their artillery bombardment had killed the Germans in the opposing trenches, cut all their barbed wire and destroyed their dugouts.
"You will be able to go over the top with a walking stick, you will not need rifles. When you get to Thiepval you will find the Germans all dead, not even a rat will have survived," one officer told the Newcastle Commercials, a battalion from northeastern England.
That misjudgment led to the bloodiest day in British military history. Some 30,000 soldiers were either killed or wounded in the first 60 minutes of the attack, mown down like skittles by machine gun fire or cut to pieces by artillery as the Germans, outnumbered seven to one, climbed out of their intact dugouts and opened fire.
"Defence was mechanized, attack was not," wrote the historian A.J.P. Taylor.
Peering out of their trenches, the battalions of troops amassed to reinforce the initial attack could see their comrades fall in a devastating hail of bullets and shells. But they obeyed the order to follow them into No Man's Land.
By the end of July 1, almost 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were dead and over 30,000 wounded. The men of whole villages and towns up and down Britain who had rushed to join up months before were wiped out in a morning.
The Somme battle, a British attempt to relieve the French who were fighting off a devastating German assault on the fortress town of Verdun 150 miles to the southeast, lasted until mid-November, when the British called off the attack -- having gained just a few miles of ground.
Further north, some eight kilometers from the rebuilt town of Arras, the sheer size of the German cemetery at Neuville-St-Vaast, is staggering -- the remains of some 44,833 German soldiers are buried here under a sea of skeletal black iron crosses jutting out of the trimmed lawn.
There is not much sense of serenity here, and few flowers apart from the occasional wreath. The cemetery evokes anonymous, mechanised death, and stands as an accusation and a warning.
The world's failure to heed that warning makes these cemeteries all the more poignant. The big memorials like Thiepval and the Canadian Vimy Monument were unveiled in the 1930s -- just a few years before the outbreak of World War II.
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