It’s Veteran’s Day, originally Armistice Day, when the slaughter of the First World War ended—at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. One hundred years ago today, however, that war was just beginning, 106 days in.
A brief history: In 1914 Europe was a Gordian Knot of alliances and treaties, empires and cousins in high places. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was a first cousin of the British Empire’s King George V, Queens Marie of Romania, Maud of Norway, Victoria Eugenie of Spain, and the Empress Alexandra of Russia as all were grandchildren of Britain’s Queen Victoria. Wilhelm’s sister, Sophia, married the future King Constantine I of Greece.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was under pressure from multiple nationalist movements from within its borders. When a member of one of the Serbian nationalist movements assassinated Archduke Ferdinand on July 18, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Serbia was allied with Russia. Germany allied itself with A-H and declared war against Russia, France was bound by treaty to Russia, so also entered the fray. Britain declared it would protect Belgium. Italy waffled. The “tinderbox” was ready to blow.
Europe in 1914
On August 4th Germany invaded Belgium so Britain declared war on Germany. Russia, France, and Britain found themselves at war with Austria-Hungary by extension of its alliance with Germany. Still, everyone involved thought the war would be over by Christmas.
Germany’s sweep across Belgium was stopped a month later by French and British forces in northern France at the Battle of the Marne. Both sides dug in, building elaborate trenches across the farmland of northern France. Between September and November the two sides moved west in what is sometimes called “The Race to the Sea,” creating a trench line all the way to the English Channel. Both sides took control of Channel ports, the German advance was stopped, and the war settled into stalemate and trench warfare. It wouldn’t change much for four years.
Trench line after the Race to the Sea
Much of the war on the Western Front took place in Flanders, a region comprising southern Belgium and northeast France. The area is a flat, fertile, marshy plain.
In late 1914, those fields were ripped open as experienced soldiers and young men alike were gunned down trying to cross the No Mans Land between the opposing trenches. Once the conflict was over the killing fields were transformed into fields of blood red poppies, growing around the bodies of the fallen soldiers, the only plants to grow on the otherwise barren battlefields.
From the poem In Flanders Fields, written by a Canadian soldier during the Great War, the poppy has become a symbol and tribute to the fallen. It represents the bloody sacrifice those soldiers made and serves as a lasting memorial to those who died in World War One and later conflicts.
Veteran’s Day is more than a day when the mail isn’t delivered, the banks are closed, and retailers try to clear out inventory before the Christmas season. Most of us will go to sleep tonight in a dry and comfortable bed, have fresh orange juice for breakfast, plan our day. There is a reason that we have those freedoms. Millions of reasons, now buried throughout Flanders fields.
If you see a veteran today, buy a poppy. Thank a soldier. Never forget. If ye break faith with us who die… We shall not sleep, though poppies grow… In Flanders fields.