Thanks to my Twitter feed I saw this short BBC news piece about recently discover aerial photographs of the battlefields of the western front. Watch it if you can.
Taken from an airship in 1919, the scale of the devastation is revealed in new and astonishing ways: Shattered towns and villages, the shell-holes and the thousands of miles of trenches zigzagging like scars across a blasted landscape.
The sheer scale of all that devastation – shown here in graphic detail – challenges our ability to comprehend the magnitude of this human catastrophe.
But beyond the landscape are the lives.
In the end – the impact is personal. Grief ripples out in concentric circles from every loss; each death or blasted life blows a hole in a family that can never be filled. And grief and loss endure through the generations – the missing piece in the family that war made. It is through each individual loss that the toll of war is revealed.
The pilot who took the film was a member of the French Resistance in the next war. When he was killed, he left behind a daughter who was too young to have memories of her father. The BBC showed her the film. It is her reaction to seeing her father on film that brings the carnage back to the individual loss.
I’ve always found November 11th unsettling. The ceremonies of remembrance – often so moving – are an emotional quandary. They presents a paradox of complexity about war that each of us must navigate.
On the one side the hoopla of militarism – all those cheering crowd in London and Berlin in August 1914 for example. Led into a war that would upend their lives, so many were caught up in the jubilation. Those who had a sense of what this war would mean were overshadowed by the mood of moment.
What has all this remembrance done over the years? Perhaps we are a little wiser now, but not too much.
A few years ago, Chris Hedges wrote War is a Force that Gives us Meaning – a compelling and provocative title. It shed light on the persistence of war in our history. It’s a drug that compels, repels and draws us into its maw.
One of my personal responses has to immerse myself in the memoirs of the Great War- to live as closely as I can to those who lived through it. Another has been to try and take from the past what lessons I can about what leads to war.
In the UK it is customary to buy and wear a red paper poppy on November 11th. It is both an act of remembrance and a way to donate support. Although I have paid for many poppies in support of the British Legion and its work for veterans, I have never worn a poppy.
I know what the poppy means to me but I do not always understand what it means to others. Harry Patch – the last surviving British soldier of the First World War – died last year at the age of 111. He called the ceremonies of remembrance “show business”.
And yet we must never forget. And always try to learn.
The Great War that gave us this date taught us so much about our capacity for destruction. That war altered the course of history but it did not end human folly. And that folly and that war did not end on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.
The Great War blew a hole in human history just as it blew a hole in the Cloth Hall of Ypres. That hall has been rebuilt. The holes in the millions upon millions of families from that war – and all the subsequent wars – can never be filled.
And we are still at war although you would never know it from the recent mid-term elections.
And I think of all those families where someone – who should be there – is missing.