Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lest We Forget

It was called the "war to end all wars".

It officially ended as pen was placed to paper in a railway carriage in Compiègne Forest, just outside Paris, on this day in 1918.

With that final stroke at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, signalling enough blood had been shed, the principal signatories, Marshal Ferdinand Foch of the Allies and Matthias Erzberger of Germany, concluded a treaty that ended the First World War.

Erzberger, a civilian who had made a passionate plea for peace in the Reichstag more than a year earlier, protested the harshness of the Allied terms. Before leaving the railway car, he concluded by saying, "a nation of seventy millions can suffer, but it cannot die". (Marshall Foch ignored Erzberger's attempt to shake his hand and is said to have replied, "Très bien".)

Erzberger later became Germany's finance minister in 1919 before being assassinated by right-wing extremists who viewed his signing of the armistice as treachery.

Decades later, American author Joseph Campbell would write, "A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself".

"It's a song written about the military cemeteries in Flanders and Northern France. In 1976, my wife and I went to three or four of these military cemeteries and saw all the young soldiers buried there"

The song "Willie McBride" is still a powerful indictment of war, and has been recorded many times since it was composed by singer-songwriter Eric Bogle in 1975. A version by Makem and Clancey is reputedly the largest selling single in Irish history. The song has also been covered by the Chieftains, the Dubliners, John McDermott and the Dropkick Murphys among others.

Lest we forget heroes like Willie McBride.

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row. That mark our place; and in the sky, the larks, still bravely singing, fly, scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead, short days ago, we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe:To you from failing hands we throw, the torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow, in Flanders fields.

p.s... Visiting the beaches of Normandy and the city of Bayeux in November 2004 left a lasting impression with respect to the level of gratitude for what the Allies accomplished more than six decades ago. Bayeux, in particular, is still adorned with American, British and Canadian flags throughout the downtown. As one travels east through Holland and Belgium, the sentiment grows even stronger for what the Canadian liberators sacrificed in driving back Nazi forces in 1944 and 1945. Recently, a young Belgian lad paid tribute by donning a Canadian uniform to salute troops who had been attending a memorial service. Pay close attention to what happens at the 1:02 mark of the video as the Canadians respond with the "Eyes Right" command; the biggest compliment parading troops can pay and normally reserved for dignitaries in reviewing stands.

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