100 Years after World War I Began, Europe Remembers Its End

By Alan Cowell, The New York Times, November 11, 2014

In Britain, there were commemorative poppies by the hundreds of thousands, bright red ceramics that filled the moat of the Tower of London.

In France, there were names, hundreds of thousands of them, too, engraved in a solemn ring on a hillside that was once a theater of war.

In Belgium, schoolchildren and military pipers joined others in a procession to the memorial marking the onetime killing fields of Flanders.

On Tuesday, Europeans paused on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to remember the moment the guns fell silent to end World War I in 1918.

In London, the clock of Elizabeth Tower, better known as Big Ben, signaled the beginning of two minutes’ silent reflection that stopped traffic as crowds gathered in Trafalgar Square.

This year, because it is the centenary of the beginning of the war, the remembrance was particularly poignant, culminating in months of preparation, exhibits and re-examination of a murderous conflict that redefined the very notion of mechanized carnage and killed millions.

And perhaps because of that milestone, magnified by more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a familiar debate over the nature of remembrance and the place of the past and of patriotism itself in modern society seemed more intense than ever.

“British society divides at this time of year,” the columnist Alex Stevenson wrote in the newspaper Metro, referring to divisions over wearing a commemorative lapel poppy sold by the nonprofit British Legion, and complaining about the social pressures brought to bear by politicians and charities to display one.

“Remembrance is important,” he said, “but it’s something that should happen all year around, not just when a national charity campaign tells you to.”

It is, of course, a debate not confined to Europe. World War I drew in combatants from the United States and the farthest reaches of empires.

In London, the installation of the ceramic poppies around the Tower of London was intended as a memorial to the 888,246 British and colonial soldiers who died. The poppies have already been sold for 25 pounds each, around $40, to raise money for charity. Initially, the installation, called “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,” by the artist Paul Cummins and the set designer Tom Piper, was supposed to be dismantled starting on Tuesday.

But such was the crush of people who wanted to see it that parts of the display will remain until the end of the month.

For many years, Armistice Day has been celebrated by nations with a focus on their own dead, but the poppies, like the so-called Ring of Remembrance in northern France, offer a broader sense of participation in the war and in loss.

“New generations must understand that the fight for peace is never over,” President François Hollande of France was quoted as saying in an interview with a newspaper in northern France, where the newest memorial was unveiled on Tuesday at the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette military cemetery, near Arras.

The monument tallies the names of 579,606 fallen soldiers, but, unusually, it cuts across national identities, and even the parameters of the war. It records the names of military personnel from France, Britain, Germany and other nations on hundreds of gold steel plates, without alluding to their nationality or rank.

The unveiling, Mr. Hollande said, aimed to be “a profoundly human gesture as well as a message of hope for all who today fight so that peace and law triumph everywhere in the world.”

For many, too, the day was one to recall the poem written in 1915 by the Canadian military doctor Lt. Col. John McCrae, which cemented the poppy at the heart of the commemorations that were to come.

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow,” the poem begins, written as if by the dead and ending with the injunction: “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.”

Published at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/12/world/europe/europe-armistice-day-world-war.html