Saturday, September 21, 2013

'Too many names upon these walls': World War One Commemoration

One of the walls of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, Thiepval, The Somme, France.
Since I returned home in July the focus of posts for this blog have been principally about the young men on both sides of my family who were killed on the fields of battle in France and Belgium during World War I, forever changing the boughs and the branches of our family tree. When I saw the theme photograph for today's Sepia Saturday — women pictured with a banner bearing the word Peace — I thought it was fitting that I participate. The title of this post makes reference not only to the over 72,000 names which are inscribed on the walls of the British Empire's Memorial to the Missing, but also to the names inscribed upon walls in hundreds of graveyards and memorials throughout the world which bear witness to the loss of millions of people in World War I. There are too many names upon these walls. Recalling the loss of so many should have been enough of an imperative for Peace.

In the history of World War I, France emerges as a study in contrasts. In the museums of Paris, the halls are filled with some of the most beautiful paintings and sculpture you might ever lay eyes on. The incomparable beauty of such work offers a window into what is creatively possible for human beings, and evokes a sense of hope. However, all hopes are dashed when one considers the history of war — the First World War in this case — and is reminded of the fact that human beings are capable of profound cruelty toward one another. Within the walls of the Louvre, while Johannes Vermeer's Lacemaker silently and perpetually worked her needle, and the Venus de Milo stood ever mute, less than 100 miles northwest of Paris there was neither art nor beauty in the theatre of war. There, with fixed bayonets young soldiers scurried over the top into the sights of the enemy to be blown to bits by cannon and machine gun fire, their bodies left to the insatiable mouths of the maggots and the flies. Meanwhile somewhere in the safety of their lairs, the generals moved the lines a couple of inches on their precious little maps.

The standing stones of Island of Ireland Peace Park, Belgium.
Next year will see the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. No longer are there any soldiers left to remind us of the catastrophe that was the war. For some it is perhaps too easy to be placated by the beauty of row upon row of perfectly crafted white stone markers, dressed in flowers, in the pristine green space of the manicured cemeteries. The perfection belies the magnitude of the loss. Some may be unmoved by numbers on a page or carved into a stone. In Island of Ireland Peace Park, near Messines, Belgium, the standing stones bear numbers which tell of 32,186, and 28,398, and 9,363 Irish killed or missing on the fields of battle. On the walls of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, the stone masons' chisels carved the names of over 72,000 members of the British Empire forces who have no known grave. At Pozieres there are over 14,000 commemorated. There are too many names upon all of these walls. Such numbers seem incomprehensible and yet represent only a small segment of the total number of persons killed on both sides of the conflict. How do we even begin to honour the sacrifice of so many lives? 

Pozieres Memorial, The Somme, France.
Over 14,000 members of the British Forces are commemorated here.
Perhaps we can begin to understand how important it is that we never forget the losses of war, and that we truly endeavour to create peace in our world,  if we remove from any sort of political context those individuals who were killed, if we just forget whose side they were on. Imagine if you will one soldier, one person, one beloved man lost, and consider how profoundly his family was changed by his death. Think about one little daughter who would never again be lifted into her daddy's arms, one young wife who would never again be warmed by the embrace of her beloved husband, one mother and one father who would never again gaze into the face of a treasured son. Take that tableau and repeat it over and over and over again. For so many their family tree was stunted at the root, cut off by the loss of those young lives.




Consider your own family now, mother, father, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers. Imagine if one of them was taken from you in this very moment, and taken in a manner so savage and so cruel that it is perhaps too difficult to conceive of such a loss. Imagine no body returned home for burial, and perhaps no grave anywhere over which to mourn, nothing to hold onto but the memories. The pain in your heart would never go away.

No matter what your political stripe, or your feelings about the First World War — the war which was supposed to end all wars — if you are a human being who has ever loved and lost another, then you must know the importance of remembering those individuals lost in war, and the importance of working toward peace. 

Today, on this International Day of Peace we must ask ourselves, can we ever become humane enough to stop destroying other human beings?

Commemoration at Notré Dame Cathedral, Paris, France.

Click on images to view larger versions.
Copyright©irisheyesjg2013.


24 comments:

  1. So, so true! Visiting the war cemeteries in France and Belgium is a very moving experience, as we found when we went there in 2003 and 2007 to visit the graves of several great uncles whom we never knew, but we did know that their deaths very deeply affected our their parents and siblings, who often named their children for their lost brothers. Although there are no more bodies, the unexploded bombs that are still regularly uncovered by the farmers in their green fields are a stark reminder of the horror that happened there.

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    1. Hi Jo,

      Thanks for your comments. I am glad the post spoke to you.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  2. I know there have been many a war since, but World War I does seem to have a powerful message for us all doesn't it. Those fields of fallen dead forever underline the importance of peace.

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    1. Hello Alan,

      Thanks for your comments; always much appreciated.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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    1. An Amen to your Amen Deb. Thanks for your comment.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  4. It just doesn't make sense to keep fighting wars.

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    1. Indeed Postcardy! Thanks for your comment.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  5. A well-timed and poignant piece - perfect for the theme today. I've visited and blogged about that memorial too and it never fails to move me.

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    1. Thank you Little Nell. Your comments are much appreciated.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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    1. Indeed! Thanks for your comment Kristin.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  7. You could feel the emotion in your writing.

    One day I will visit the war memorials (and remember relatives) in France and Belgium. I imagine it will be a very moving experience.

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    1. Thank you Sharon for your comments; much appreciated. I hope you do go to the memorials one day.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  8. Too many names upon these walls.

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    1. Amen! Boobook. Thanks for your comment.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  9. I went to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra earlier this year - a place we often visited in my youth. I never fail to be moved by the experience and you are correct, too many names indeed. Imagine the poor stonemasons who had to chip away at the rock...that must chip away at your very heart and soul too I think.

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    1. Thank you for your comments Alex. I think about the stonemasons too, and even those who maintain the memorials these days. It must be a sobering task.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  10. I am late in catching up on everyone's posts as we were in Columbus OH.
    I just love reading the different approaches Sepians take to these challenges. Makes us all think!

    A great selection for this week!!

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    1. Thanks for your comments Jackie. Hope Columbus was fun and the weather was fine!

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  11. Thanks for sharing information of the history of WW 1. I guess we tend to dwell on the next one and there is a lot to learn from you post.

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    1. Thanks for your comments L. D.. Sadly WW1 was so long ago, the further we get away from it, the easier it will be for people to forget. Hopefully in the future we won't see George Santayana's saying come to life, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  12. A sobering and inspirational post Jennifer. I have been reduced to tears by the vastness if war cemeteries and yet behind each name there is a deeper story and an ocean of family sadness.

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    1. So sorry to be late in replying. Thanks for your comments Pauleen; as always much appreciated. So true, as you say, that behind each name there is a deeper story, and terrible loss for so many individual families.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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Cheers, Jennifer

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