One hundred years ago


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

Map Eruope in 1914_outline


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

WWI map trench line Nov 1914


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.




3 thoughts on “One hundred years ago

  1. Verlee, your post is beautiful and so meaningful today.
    It evokes a story I would like to share with you. Xavier’s grandfather’s brother was a very young and talented artist, 18 years old and studying at the Beaux Arts in Paris. He was already quite prolific and we have a lot of his work. They took away his brushes, put a gun in his arms and sent him off to the front.
    Recently as I was going through lots of old family stuff, I found an old box with a small key that contained some of his personal documents, along with a sealed envelope. With anticipation, I carefully opened it and found a letter to this effect:
    A list of his friends from the Beaux Arts (presumably they were all being sent off to fight) had sworn to each other that on a very specific date (10 years later, same date, same time, at the same cafe), they were to meet up again come rain or shine, and they each signed at the bottom. Well, I don’t know if any of them made it but I do know that Jacques Pochez did not. He was killed very shortly after on the front.

    1. Mary–I mean OuiOui–your story illustrates the tragic impact of this war on families throughout France. It was fought on French ground, wiping out a generation of young French men (as well as British and German and many others), only to be replayed 20 years later.

  2. Verlee,
    What a thoughtful and moving tribute to WWI veterans in particular, and also to all the men and women who have served and suffered (and still are) to protect the freedom and well-being of the rest of us — or believed they were doing so, or simply were drafted into mandatory service. I am ashamed to admit that I too rarely reflect on and express gratitude for the sacrifices so many veterans have made for us through the years. Thanks for reminding me . . . and my deepest gratitude and appreciation to all our veterans.

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