|One of the walls of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, Thiepval, The Somme, France.|
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.
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?
|The standing stones of Island of Ireland Peace Park, Belgium.|
|Pozieres Memorial, The Somme, France.|
Over 14,000 members of the British Forces are commemorated here.
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.|
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