The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month… the guns quieted and the “war to end all wars” came to an end. November 11, 1918 is the day that gave rise to the public holiday of Armistice Day, now known either as Remembrance Day or Veterans Day, depending on the country. On this day, we remember the sacrifices that veterans have made, especially those who came home wounded, physically or spiritually or both, and of course to remember those who gave their lives.
But, in honoring our veterans, let’s not lose site of what happened at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. Four years of horrible carnage and killing that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions soldiers and civilians came to an end. The “war to end all wars” was rooted in nationalism pumped up by imperialism and capitalistic greed. Tens of millions of people died in the pursuit of the jingoistic and capitalistic desires of a few. As the American journalist, John Reed, wrote in The Masses in September 1914, at the beginning of the war, “The real War, of which this sudden outburst of death and destruction is only an incident, began long ago. It has been raging for tens of years, but its battles have been so little advertised that they have been hardly noted. It is a clash of Traders…” The guns ceased; quiet reigned; the war was over. And, then as we know, it was all followed by the placing of blame, crippling reparations thrust on Germany, a period of wealth generation and economic speculation followed by the crash of markets and a world-wide depression, and the rise of dictators and autocrats, who pushed the world into war again.
On this day, let us remember that war often begins with greed, ignorance, and hate. And, let us remember that it rarely is limited to the greedy, the ignorant, and those filled with hate. It drags the rest of us along with it. As we thank our veterans, let us also give pause and consider the cost to all of us.
I’ll close this post with a poem by the Welsh poet, Hedd Wyn (“Blessed Peace”– the bardic name of Ellis Evans). He was killed in action in 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele. Six weeks after his death, he was posthumously awarded the Chair of the Bard—the highest honor at the National Eisteddfod of Wales—winning with his poem Yr Arwr (The Hero), which he had written while on leave from the front earlier that year. Hedd Wyn was a reluctant soldier, having joined the army to spare his family any embarrassment about not doing their part. His poem, Rhyfel (War) clearly conveys his feelings and the stark reality of war.
The Welsh text is from the Oxford Book of Welsh Verse. The English is my translation.
Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O’i ol mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.
Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A’i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.
Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt
Ynghrog ar gangau’r helg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.
Woe that I live in such a morose age.
God ebbs on the far horizon.
After Him, Man, both king and commoner,
Raises his ugly authority.
When he felt God going away,
He raised a sword to kill his brother.
The sound of battle is in our ears,
Its shadow is on poor cottages.
The old harps formerly borne,
Are hung on yon willow branches,
And the screams of boys fill the wind
And their blood mixes with the rain.