A century ago, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the worst war in recorded history up to that time ended on its Western Front. Hundreds of miles to the East, a Saint was driven off his throne by president Wilson’s threats to continue to starve the peoples of Central Europe until they did so. Still further east — as far as the Orthodox Churches are concerned — another set of Imperial Saints had been created through martyrdom. The great influenza pandemic would soon sweep through the devastated globe, particularly singling out the young and healthy; more lives would be lost in Russia, Turkey, Ireland, and elsewhere in continuing struggles unleashed by the conflict. But by 1924 and the end of the Irish Civil War, the survivors began in earnest to attempt some return to “normalcy” (in president Harding’s immortal phrase), to survey the wreckage, and to mourn the dead.
In every combatant nation, an orgy of remembrance began. Floral tokens multiplied — red poppies in the Anglosphere in homage to the poem “In Flanders Fields;” blue cornflowers in France; forget-me-nots in Germany, and so on. Unknown warriors were solemnly interred in various revered spots and innumerable war memorials and cenotaphs erected. Across the worldwide British Empire, the annual two minute’s silence evoked the moment the armistice was signed, and Armistice Day itself observed with becoming ritual in the victor nations (the vanquished observed other days). Religion responded: Pope Benedict XV revived a proper preface for requiem Masses unseen since the Tridentine Reform, while Theosophy and Spiritualism exploded in size, offering their own false, gnostic explanations for the mysteries of suffering and death. Veteran’s organisations were formed to maintain the camaraderie of the front and look after their interests in a peacetime world that seemed bent on ignoring the living while honouring the dead.
If anything, however, this “War to end War” had the opposite effect. If we may believe Winston Churchill, Wilson’s insistence on deposing the Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns was directly responsible for the rise of Hitler and so the next war with its concomitant horrors across the globe, from death camps to atom bombs and blitzkriegs. As with the First outing, the Second opened up many more blood-bathed vistas, as Stalin gobbled up Eastern Europe, China fell to the Communists, and the Partition of India claimed more millions of lives. To this one may add the corpses piled up in Korea, Indochina, Algeria, the Congo, the Near East, and all the other little “savage wars of peace” whose dark light illumined the Cold War.
But amid this later carnage, what became of the survivors of that first great conflict? It had certainly marked them all. The writers and artists among them wove it into their work. J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, who had lost all but one of his best friends by the time the guns stopped, no doubt remembered the trenches when he wrote in The Hobbit: “Already behind him among the goblin dead lay many men and many dwarves, and many a fair elf that should have lived yet long ages merrily in the wood.” The more politically minded in Europe turned to Fascism, Nazism, and Communism, or violently opposed them — hence old comrades were found both as collaborators and partisans; in America they particularly affected the rise of FDR. But most came home, and did their best, as people must, to pick up their lives again with greater or lesser success. Through the Depression and following wars, they did their best to keep body and soul — and those of their families — together.
By the time I came along, most were in late middle age or older — but they were everywhere. As with most people I knew, my grandfather and most of my great uncles had been in that war, as my father and uncles had been in the second. As a little boy in New York, I would see the old vets selling poppies this time of year in Grand Central Station; when we moved to Los Angeles we came to know men who had fought on both sides — of whom there were a plentiful supply. The War had had a huge effect on our own family history and was very much a living part of the present.
But those days, and those men, are gone. A century later, it is right to ask: what did they fight for? What did so many die for? For the men beside them, for the families and friends they left behind; for God and Monarch, for “Freedom.” But to-day, what is more important, is what they did not die for: that their descendants might be murdered in the womb, that marriage and gender itself be defiled, and that the God most of them believed in and many died for might be banished from public life. Let us proudly wear the poppy, the cornflower, or the forget-me-not in their memory; but let us remember that our struggle against that which they did NOT die for is a sacred obligation:
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.