Tuesday, September 24, 2019

France and Belgium: WWI Silent Witnesses

The thought that Jock died for his country is no comfort to me. His memory is all I have left to love. 
                          --John Low's fiance, January 10, 1918, UK

We can truly say that the whole circuit of the earth is girdled with the graves of our dead. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon the earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.   
                     --King George V, Tyne Cot Cemetery, 11 May 1922

The belief in the possibility of a short decisive war appears to be one of the most ancient and dangerous of human illusions. 
                                            --Robert Wilson Lynd

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them." 
 --Laurence Binyon

World War I changed the world and we are still feeling the ripples today in shattered alliances and forging new countries that did not exist before that splintering war. I shudder to think of the broken promises and inability to find lasting peace after so much horror.  It is a war whether we want to admit it or not lives on--even though it has been over 100 years since it ended. For all the good intentions, the League of Nations did not solve the divisions it promised.

I have always been interested in World War I, also known as the First World War of the Great War--a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. My great-uncle and my husband's grandfather fought in the WW 1 trenches, but they were long gone before I was born. Their stories I only heard from others. But in Europe, the voices are still in the June poppies, the statues in almost every town that bears the names who fought and died, and in the wind that blows through the hundreds of cemeteries. You can practically see their faces and hear their calls to one another as you walk in the trenches where they fought and fell.

This summer we happened to be in France for a week before we attended the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy. My husband's father landed on Omaha beach as a strong and courageous 22-year-old young man--being blinded six weeks later. Interestingly enough, my father-in-law's own father also fought in France a generation before in WW1. Apparently, he rarely spoke of the experience to his son. All my father-in-law knew from relatives was that Charles Nephi Shumway, known as "Nef" was never the same once he returned from northern France as a young man in his late 20's. He shrouded those trench-filled years--never wanting his son to know the horrors and nightmares he had known in the battles of Saint Mihiel and the Meuse Argonne Offensive. Little did he know, that his own son would see the fox holes of Normandy, France in World War II.

A seemingly ordinary picture of an older couple, my husband's grandparents. Charles or "Nef" Shumway fought in the last battles of WWI in France. It was said that he was never the same again. WWI trenches haunted him all of his life, and then like many of his generation, he watched his young son follow him into WWII where he would land on D-Day. Smith Shumway promised his parents he would come home with all of his limbs swinging, but he could not predict that blindness would be his scar from the war. To see his son's blindness pained his father, but he learned to respect his son's resilience and strength as he faced his battles after the war.

We also looked up in the Canadian war records my great uncle (my grandmother's brother) who fought in the late part of the war--being injured as a 23-year-old young man in England. I had always heard about him from my grandmother, and how he too was never the same again when he came back home to Canada. No one at that time understood about PTSD. 

My grandmother's brother, Frank Vatnsdal, who was wounded in an English hospital from some bombings there. He never made it to France but came home to Canada a few years later. Everyone in the family always said he fought in the Battle of the Somme in France, but I learned after some research that he never made it over the English Channel. His battle came in the form of bombings in a training camp in Britain even before he could make it to the real battles in France. It was interesting to know that he fought the war in a training camp in England...

J.R. Tolkien who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings during the Battle of the Somme and lost many close comrades started writing in the trenches of France. Creating the story of the Middle-Earth was his way to not succumb to despair, He wanted the world to know that soldiers who fight evil are never the same again when they come home. Tolkien wrote:

"Alas! There are some wounds that cannot be fully cured," said Gandalf.

"I fear it may be so with mine," said Frodo. "There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same, for I shall not be the same."

I only wish that every world leader could tour around World War I and II battlegrounds before they take their office. In my opinion, it should be a necessary pilgrimage for each to slowly wander the cemeteries of northern France, Belgium, and so many other places. Perhaps if they trekked together as a solemn group, they would understand the colossal desolation of war--that there were other solutions to face their enemies. Indeed, battles are fought with real lives, real people, who face scars, wounds, and death for us who live because of them. We must do everything we can to remember them individually--even if it is painful--so that we can understand the cost of their offering.

Allied and Associated Powers
British Empire8,904,467908,3712,090,212191,6523,190,23535.8
United States4,355,000116,516204,0024,500323,0188.1
Central Powers
Grand total65,038,8108,528,83121,189,1547,750,91937,468,90457.5

                                              Sites near The Battle of the Somme

In almost every square or village in France and Belgium they honor the people who gave their lives.
Bony, France, in the very northern tip of France where the Battle of the Somme occurred.

At the Battle of the Somme Museum in a a chateau in Peronne, France

More artifacts at the The Museum of the Great War in Peronne, France

A picture of a soldier who was married right before the war. 

Here is a picture of his widow many years later after the war that killed her young husband.

Auguste Delengaigne, a French soldier who was considered "France's most severely mutilated soldier."

Battle of the Somme fields

You can still see and in some places walk the trenches in Beaumont Hamel. The attack was a devastating failure. In a single morning, almost 20,000 troops died and another 37,000 were wounded. The Canadian Newfoundland Regiment was almost wiped out. The battle was on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July, 1916.

More trenches...

In the trenches in Beaumont-Havel

A photo in the Beaumont-Havel trenches

At the Beaumont-Hamel site where the guide showed the students how many people died in the battle. She brought them together as a group, and then showed by the hour how many men died by telling them they had been shot. At the end of her talk, only three students were still living. Out of about 50 students, it was very sobering to all of us.
Joseph and Elias at Beaumont-Hamel

Everywhere were poppy wreaths.

The Thiepval Museum near Thiepval, France is a war memorial to 72, 337 men from Britain and South Africa who died in the Battles of the Somme from 1915 to 1918. 

       At Tyne Cot Museum near the town of Leper,  Belgium

A girl dressed up like a WWI nurse that came to see the cemetery.


                                                            Ypres, Belgium

Pictured is a British young boy with his father in Ypes, Belgium. Since his relative died in the war, the young boy has become very interested in WW I so his dad brought him over the English Chanel to see what happened over 100 years ago.

Thousands of people gather every night to honor the veterans from Belgium every night. They have been coming since 1928. They stopped during WW2, but then started again. 

Walking up the stairs to the monument

The English choir who sang for the ceremony that night. Every night at 7:00 in Ypres, France there is a ceremony to honor the dead who fought and died in Belgium, particularly near Ypres. 

Wilfred Owens, a Canadian soldier who wrote in "In Flanders Fields" after his good friend was killed. Owens died later--right before the war ended.

The beautiful poppies that were everywhere in the fields of France and Belgium in late May and early June.

In Flanders Fields

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
scare 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

                         By John McCrae

At the American Somme Cemetery 

A distant relative we found in the American Cemetery

Elias and Joseph strolling through the American cemetery

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