Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In Flanders fields

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the Armistice, the end of the misnamed Great War (World War I is the better term). The poem depicted above by John McCrae has become symbolic for this mass-slaughter. I post it here against a background of poppies shot by myself.

It is strange how little we learned in Holland about this war. In our history lessons we never got further than the 19th century, and my main knowledge as a kid came from reading some of the older Biggles novels. I still have a Sopwith Camel airplane on my desk as a memento from those days. Funnily enough it was a sitcom that really enhanced my understanding of this tragedy. The fourth installment in the brilliant Blackadder series, Blackadder goes forth, is set in the trenches of the British army around 1917. The final episode, Goodbyeee..., sees the officers and soldiers being ordered to advance and meet an almost certain death. In one of the most striking scenes in the history of television, the four main characters captured in the mud fade into a beautiful, tranquil field of symbolic poppies to end the series.

Living in France for two and a half years further enhanced my grasp of the enormity of the suffering of this war. France alone saw a death toll of close to two million, or 5% of the total population. Every small village remembers their fallen sons in monuments - and it is chilling to see that even in the smallest hamlets, dozens of names are hewn in marble. The toll on the art community (the main subject of my blog after all) is considerable as well - casualties include two of the greatest painters of all time: Marc (dead at 36) and Macke (dead at 27), a promising British composer, Butterworth (dead at 31), and who knows how many whose lifes were cut short in their late teens and never even got the chance to shine.

Nothing prepared me though for the enormities revealed in the recent BBC documentary The last days of World War One. With the Germans and their allies on the virge of collapse, an armistice was finally negotiated and for symbolic reasons, it was decided to let the war end at 11 AM on 11/11. That did not stop the power-mad generals from sending their men into the battle even in the dying hours of the war. That morning alone saw 11000 of them killed, sacrificed by uniformed war criminals who never have been brought to justice.

All in al, 20 million people died in this war, which was triggered in a domino effect started off by the assassination of one single man. Tragically, Rowan Atkinson's line from Blackadder goes Forth was uncomfortably close to the truth: "The real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort not to have a war."

Today is armistice day. Let us remember all those poor souls who had no choice but to die. In Flanders fields.