Posts tagged: The Great War
When my plane landed in Brussels in the spring of 2012, I was stupid and dazed from lack of sleep. I'd slept only a few hours in the last couple of days, having worked late into the night on Thursday and then pulled an all-nighter on Friday to get everything written and filed before my 6 a.m. departure Saturday morning.
Most people would have buckled up their seat belts and caught up on lost sleep during the long flights, but I have some kind of airplane insomnia. I find it almost impossible to stay asleep on a plane. It didn’t help that we flew over so much unsettled weather (tornadoes across the Midwest) that the flight was too bumpy to rest easy. I was still too keyed up to much more that doze on the international flight, waking at every movement of the passengers around me.
A couple of hours after I landed in Belgium on Sunday I took the train to the city of Ieper. I didn’t dare sleep on the train because I was afraid I would not wake up at my stop, so by the time I stepped off at the Ieper station, I was barely functioning. There were no taxis available so I studied the city map and then pulled my rolling suitcase behind me, bumping over cobblestones, as I made my way to the hotel. I slumped over a bowl of soup while I waited for my room to be ready and when I finally unlocked the door, I was finished.
I usually power through the first day in Europe to better adjust to the time change. This time I closed the door, stripped off the clothes I’d been wearing for more than 24-hours, crossed to the bed and collapsed. I didn’t wake up for 6 hours, and when I did, I was famished. Unfortunately, by that time most of the shops and cafes were closed.
As I walked up and down the narrow streets near the marketplace looking for a bodega or bistro with late hours, I thought about what drives us to go and see and explore, about what compels us to endure crowded, bumpy flights, grating security annoyances and the harsh physical effects of long-distance travel. But when I turned a corner and caught sight of the Menin Gate I realized, again, that the answer, as is so often the case, was right in front of me.
The Menin Gate is a massive monument to the more than 90,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought in the Great War (World War 1) but whose remains were never found. It sits on the edge of the city center and marks the route to the Belgian Western Front. Still, a century later, buglers from the local fire brigade mark the “last post” in a short but moving ceremony each night. A ceremony only interrupted by the Second World War.
The gate is striking in its simplicity and its size. At night, illuminated by spotlights, especially if it is your first glimpse, the gate is an arresting sight.
I was in Ieper because as the site of unimaginable devastation during the First World War, it is the epicenter of a period of history that illustrates, heartbreakingly so, the flawed and all-too-human story of our human history. It was something I needed to see.
Over the years I’ve had the same experience in so many other places around the world. Travel is exhausting. It eats at our resources and frequently requires us to step off the edge of our comfortable lives. And in that way travel changes us, sculpts us, enriches us in incomparable measures.
I guess the truth is we go because there is so much to see. And we don’t want to leave this world without having experienced as much of it as we possibly can. We go because there is nothing as powerful as standing in a place you've only read about before and opening your mind and heart to the lessons of history and time.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com
When I was 12 years old, my family moved into a rambling Craftsman-style bungalow. The house had been built in the early-to-mid 1920s with all the signature details of the era including beautiful wainscoting, built-in bookcases and, in two rooms, window seats that ran the length of one wall. I spent many hours on those window seats, my forehead pressed against the glass, looking over the rooftops of the neighborhood behind us. I did a lot of reading on that cushioned seat and a lot of daydreaming.
One day, looking for a place to hide in a neighborhood game of Hide and Seek, I opened the top of one of the window seats, but there was already something in it. I pulled out a fabric-wrapped bundle that held a pair of stiff canvas objects I couldn’t identify and what looked like some kind of mask. I showed them to my grandfather, my source for the answer to all mysteries.
“Those are Doughboy gaiters and a gas mask,” he told me, turning them over in his hands.
I’d never heard of a gaiter and the only doughboy I knew anything about advertised canned biscuits. The mask was familiar, but only from movies and books. I got a quick history lesson about the First World War, the nickname for American soldiers at the time, the rough wool uniforms, legs protected by the gaiters—or leggings—that strapped and laced around a man’s calves and the gas attacks that sent soldiers scrambling, often too late, for their protective masks.
He told me I had ancestors who’d fought in the Great War, pulled out the Encyclopedia and left me to my research.
That was the start of an interest that has lasted a lifetime. The war that was to end all wars never left my mind for long after that, drawing me to books and songs and even fashions of the era. Some time in my early 20s, digging through a box of junk at a flea market, I came across a U.S. Victory Medal. Such medals were sent to every surviving soldier in 1921 to mark his service. It’s in my jewelry box now.
On the back of the medal are the words, “The War of Civilization.” If only it had been. If that war, one of the most brutal and destructive in history, had been the last, my grandfather would not have spent years in the South Pacific during the Second World War. My father would not have gone to Korea and Vietnam.
As it was, a generation was decimated, lost to not only the war, but the collateral damage of the Spanish Influenza that rode its coattails around the world. By the end, 16 million were dead and the landscape of parts of Europe was forever changed.
When the phrase “The Greatest Generation” became popular, I bit my tongue. It seemed to me the “greatest” generation was the that fought and survived that First World War. Many returned to simply pick up and go on. Others were broken completely, suffering what was called “shell shock.” That generation endured the Great War, the Great Depression and then, the ultimate cruelty, was either called to fight again again or, worse, send their sons to another unthinkable world war.
I finally made it to Belgium in 2012 and one of the stops on my itinerary was a tour of Flanders Fields, the site of so much of the horror of the Western Front. I stepped into preserved bunkers and if they chilled me on a warm spring day, I could only imagine how horrible, how dark and damp and cold, they must have been in the war, surrounded by a sea of mud, echoing the deafening barrage of shells and gunfire, filed with the sounds of the injured and dying.
At the at the Flanders Fields American Cemetery, I walked among the 368 white marble crosses reading the names, birth dates and home states—from Alabama to Washington—of the men that had fallen in the last battles before the armistice was signed in November, 1918.
I sat in what had been the “Gold Star Mothers” room, a place for visiting mothers who had lost sons and buried them in Flanders.
At the German Cemetery, a darker, more somber place, I read more names, some of them 16-year-old boys who’d been encouraged by their teachers to join up and experience what was going to be a quick rout. Startled, I saw the same name as my husband’s grandfather, a man whose family immigrated from Germany to the United States in the years before the war. It wasn’t him but it might have been a relative. No one seems to know.
I stood at the Menin Gate in Ieper (Ypres) surrounded by the names of more than 50,000 men who have no known grave. I listened as the bugler played and a wreath was laid, participating in a ceremony that has been held each evening since 1927, except during the years of German occupation in the next world war.
Now, in 2014, we’ve reached the century mark. What began with the murder of an Archduke (and his wife, although no one ever seems to mention it) and ended with the Treaty of Versailles and a shattered world, is being remembered.
If you’ve ever thought of going to Europe, or wanted to go back, this anniversary is a good time to do it. Follow the branches of your family tree. Chances are, before the great generation that went to the Second World War, you had an ancestor in the First.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” (available at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org