World War I still etched into European psyche

Nearly 100 years after "the war to end all wars," there’s no letup in the global operation to honor the fallen

Published June 30, 2014 12:00AM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post On a slab of soft white stone, a laser-guided drill carves one family's message to a long lost boy.

Slowly, the words emerge: "God has saved from weary strife, in its dawn this fresh young life."

The gravestone belongs to a private in the British army's Leicestershire Regiment, killed in France on Oct. 31, 1914 and named only as W. Walker. He was 28.

Walker was among 16 million soldiers and civilians who lost their lives in World War I.

Later this week, the world will mark 100 years since the assassination of an Austrian prince in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo dragged the great powers of the time into a conflict they called "the war to end all wars."

Memories of WWI are fading — British sailor Claude Choules, who died in 2011 at age 110, is believed to have been the last surviving combat veteran.

But in cemeteries and memorial sites around the world, there’s no letup in the global operation to honor the fallen.

During a time of tight spending, the governments of Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand,South Africa and India increased the budget of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by almost 4 percent last year to $99 million.

That enables the CWGC to maintain graves and memorials to 1.7 million combatants from the former British Empire who died in the two world wars.

"We are here to help people understand what happened, what the sacrifice of those soldiers meant," says Nelly Poignonnec, a Frenchwoman who serves as communications supervisor for the CWGC.

"We have a duty to commemorate them in perpetuity."

The Brits aren’t alone.

Germany's War Graves Commission has a $55 million budget, raised mainly by public donations to maintain memorials to soldiers who fell in both world wars. For France, a special service of the Defense Ministry cares for 1.3 million war graves.

The US Battle Monument's Commission employs 50 people overseas to tend the graves of 124,908 American war dead, including 30,000 from WWI. Nearly half lie in the Meuse-Argonne American cemetery, a 2.5 hour drive southeast of here.

Every year, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission engraves thousands of new headstones.

A handful will mark new graves for bodies that are still occasionally uncovered by farmers plowing their fields around here. The vast majority will replace stones eroded by decades of exposure to the elements.

Pvt. Walker's is one of 22,000 to be cut this year in the workshop the CWGC runs in this northern French town set amid rolling farmland where some of the war's bloodiest battles were fought.

Quarries in southern England producing the original Portland stone used for the graves in France and Flanders can no longer keep up with demand, so alternatives are shipped in to Beaurains from Italy, Bulgaria and farther afield.

After they are engraved — either using computer-guided machines or by hand by the commission's team of trained craftsmen — the memorial tablets are sent out around the world.

Headstone production manager Alan Jarvis points to a stack of stones destined for shipment to the Gaza Strip, where more than 4,400 Commonwealth casualties are buried. The previous week, he says, a consignment was sent to Benghazi, Libya, last resting place for 1,214 British Commonwealth soldiers from WWII.

The CWGC employs 1,300 people tending 23,000 sites in 153 countries.

The scale of its operation to care for cemetery gardens and maintain the memorials gives an indication of the worldwide scope of the Great War's carnage.

There are 15 members of Lincolnshire Yeomanry laid to rest in Algeria after their transport ship was torpedoed by a U-boat in 1915. Maala cemetery in Yemen contains the graves of 142 servicemen killed in WWI defending the city of Aden against the Turks.

However, it’s the vast graveyards of northern France and southern Belgium that reveal the industrial scale of the WWI's slaughter, and its impact in shaping today's world.

A short drive from Beaurains, a ridge of highland known as the Lorette Spur is topped with a stout white church surrounded by the graves of 45,000 French soldiers — the country's largest military necropolis.

Down the hill in Neuville-Saint-Vaast stands a forest of gray crosses marking the tree-shaded resting place of 44,833 German soldiers. It’s especially poignant given Germany's post-WWI history that 129 tablets engraved with the Star of David are mixed among the crosses.

Nearby Vimy Ridge was the site of an allied breakthrough in April 1917, when a force of mostly Canadian troops stormed German strongholds. Today, the ridge is a Canadian national shrine and place of pilgrimage for trans-Atlantic visitors.

"When you talk about Vimy Ridge, that was really where Canada became a nation," says Fred Lowenberger, 69, a retired sports coach visiting from Saskatchewan.

A towering white monument inscribed with the names of 11,285 fallen Canadians whose bodies were never found now dominates the ridge. It features on Canada's $20 bill.

"This is where we pulled together, where they finally got to fight as a unit, our four divisions. It's part of Canada now, and it's something I really had to see," Lowenberger says.

WWI's role in molding modern nationhood helps explain why it continues to exercise a fascination and emotional power unmatched by earlier conflicts.

Australian national identity was forged in the fire of the Gallipoli campaign against Turkey.Poland re-emerged as an independent country after WWI. States such as Finland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia grew out of the debris.

The war also triggered the Russian Revolution and saw the United States emerge as a world power. In Germany, humiliating defeat sowed the seeds of Nazism. The breakup of Turkey's empire drew new borders across the Middle East.

Beyond the geopolitical legacy, the scale of the carnage meant more families were touched by that war than by any previous conflict. And the new technologies of photography and film ensured they had tangible images of the lost to pass down through the generations.

"There was hardly a family that wasn’t affected in some way, that did not have a casualty," says Jarvis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. "There’s a willingness among people for the commemoration to go on."

As the centenary of the Western Front's agony of trench warfare approaches, far from fading, the war's presence is being kept alive by new museums and monuments sprouting on the battlefields.

The French authorities are building an international memorial to all war dead next to the graveyard at Notre-Dame de Lorette.

Schools from across Europe bring students to the region to witness the war's heritage.

"I can't imagine what happened here, the horror," says 15-year-old Matilde from Orleans, visiting the Canadian memorial with her high school colleagues.

"Coming here is going to help me with my studies," she says. "But I still can't really explain how they could have done something like this. These guys were our age, it gives you a really strange feeling."

A panel at the entrance to the German cemetery at Neuville-Saint-Vaast leads with a quotation from Franco-German Nobel Peace laureate Albert Schweitzer: "Soldiers' graves are the greatest preachers of peace."

With the current crisis in Ukraine reviving fears of a war in Europe, some see a growing need to disseminate the history of WWI for new generations to learn from the conflict.

"It's never the ordinary people who make wars, no ordinary human wants that. It's the leaders. That's always been the same," says Christian E. Schlegel, a veteran volunteer guardian at the Lorette memorial site. "We have to keep the memory alive, it is something that's close to us because the suffering was so great, especially in this region."

His thoughts are echoed back at the French headquarters of Commonwealth War Graves Commission, where a team of gardeners, stonemasons and gardeners toil to maintain the memorials to the millions of young men who died a century ago.

The way they tell it, it's more than just a job.

"We are here to keep up the memory, to remember what those soldiers fought for," says blacksmith Christian Cousin, a muscular 49-year-old hammering iron gate rails into shape over his forge.

"We are the artisans of remembrance."

By Paul Ames


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