The war that was to end all wars

 London, England and environs
January 2005
Growing up I didn’t know much about World War One, but what American child really does? It’s not a subject heavily covered in American schools. I knew the basics of  the powder keg that started it all, the sinking of the Lusitania by German U-boats, the Treaty of Versailles. But I didn’t know the names of specific battles; I never understood the connection of the Lost Generation to World War One; I wasn’t familiar with the significance behind the red poppy. I never even knew that the holiday of Veteran’s Day in the United States was originally known as Armistice Day (the day the Germans surrendered to the Allied Forces) and that it wasn’t until 1954 that its name in the United States was changed to Veteran’s Day to honor all veterans of past wars. 

My interest in the Great War was piqued when I learned that my grandmother’s father had been a doughboy (the name bestowed upon American soldiers) in World War One. He was a humble man all his life (or so I was told), and the only time he ever truly traveled was to fight in a war thousands of miles from his home.  This minor discovery fascinated me. 

In the fall of my sophomore year of college, I took a class entitled “The Great War.” I attended an extremely small institution, with even smaller academic departments, so I was somewhat ecstatic when I discovered that a course pertaining to all the who, what, where, when, and how topics of World War One would be taught. 

The following semester, on an interim trip to London, the streets and buildings became my classroom for the Great War. 

I’m pretty sure I was the only one in our group who had stopped to take a picture of the Great War memorial in the village of Windsor (home to the famous Windsor Castle). I didn’t care,  for it was the first red poppy wreath I had ever seen. Last semester I learned that the poppy flower became the symbol of World War One after John McCrae’s haunting poem “In Flanders Fields” was published. The poem tells how this particular flower bloomed across some of the worst battlefields in Flanders, Belgium, the red symbolizing the blood spilled by the millions of men who died. 

Inscribed on the wall were the names of those who had died in the war or whose bodies were never found. The list was quite long, considering how small Windsor is. Although it was a cold and blustery January day, the pockets of individual artificial poppies remained nestled in the dirt at the base of the memorial, never to leave even in death the sides of the men who had fallen. 

Away from the mobs of tourists that congest the area around the castle and train station, the village of Windsor is truly a quiet little hamlet, the typical English village. One could just imagine the type of place it was before August 4, 1914, the date that the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, the date which would forever change the lives of millions of British men, many of whom were still boys, and their families.

As I walked the back streets, venturing farther away from touristy Windsor, I wondered where enlistments had taken place, where the first lists of casualties from major battles were posted. I thought of a book I had read the previous semester, A Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Her story was not unique for the horrific nature of the war but still unimaginable to many today. She  lost both her brother and fiancé in the war. During the war she had served as a V.A.D. (voluntary aid detachment), a British voluntary organization which provided field nursing services, mainly during the two world wars. Her firsthand experiences with the Great War would lead to her becoming a staunch pacifist in later years, like many other Great War veterans as well.

Back on the streets of London in the Westminster district, I was having the most difficult time trying to locate the Cenotaph, the country’s most revered monument for the Great War. Cenotaph means “empty tomb” and is usually a monument erected in honor of a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere. 

Armed with my map,  I paraded up and down Whitehall, the road that the Cenotaph is supposedly on, until I discovered that it was not on one side. It was in the middle of the road. If you’re not familiar with what it looks like, it’s somewhat easy to miss. It’s undecorated save for a carved wreath on each end and the words “The Glorious Dead” which were selected by Rudyard Kipling. He was  famous for the children’s work of literature, The Jungle Book, but also a forever grieving father who lost his only son at the Battle of Loos in France. 

As I precariously tried to cross the street without getting clipped by the oncoming traffic whose opposite ways I still can never get used to, I finally (and safety) made it to the site of the annual National Service of Remembrance held at 11 AM on Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closet to Armistice Day. 

At first I thought it odd that the monument was so understated, without adornment of any kind. But then perhaps that was its purpose. The Great War was called such because it was supposed to be the war to end all wars (and ironically enough, mankind would be at war with each other again a mere 21 years later). It was the first time that modern warfare tactics were used (submarines, tanks, poison gas) and so the war to end all wars was an extremely overstated affair, with some of the worst forms of “heinous adornment.” 

I concluded my Great War sojourn at Westminster Abbey,  one of England’s most historic edifices, but also home to tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The story behind the selection of the Unknown Soldier was quite touching. A few years after the end of the war, the bodies of four unknown soldiers from four different battlefields were selected. One body was chosen to be the Unknown Soldier, while the rest were reinterred at military cemeteries. The Unknown Soldier made a symbolic return to his homeland, eventually being laid to rest in the west end of the Nave at Westminster Abbey. It was there that his grave was sealed with a temporary stone that read:

“A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country.
Greater Love Hath No Man Than This.”

As I read these words inscribed so many years ago, a slight chill went up my back. A nameless solider was buried in the same place where some of the country’s most prolific figures are buried, the site of countless royal coronations and funerals, a place of the utmost importance in the hearts of the British people.

The tomb is majestic, completely bordered on all sides by an array of poppies. Although I enjoyed seeing the other points of interest in the abbey, it is the grave that six years later is still the freshest image in my mind. Perhaps that is why this one flower majestically still bloomed even amidst the death and destruction of war, a flower that would always resonate throughout all time. 

 I haven’t yet made it to the battlefields of the Great War, although one day I hope to-Ypres in Belgium, the Somme in France,  Gallipoli in Turkey. What I do instead is stop and pay tribute at small memorials I come across, whether it is on a side street in Rome or a church in the sixth arrondissement in Paris. It was truly a world war in every sense.

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