"Remembrance Day at the John McCrae House (birthplace, museum, & memorial) in Guelph, Ontario Canada. A detail shot of the 'altar' of the memorial, with the complete poem 'In Flander's Fields' and the line 'LEST WE FORGET' inscribed on it. 2 Canadian remembrance day poppy pins and part of a wreath are visible." (11 November 2009). Image Source: Wiki.
Today is Remembrance Day, also known as Armistice Day, which observes the end of hostilities of World War I. It also commemorates the end of World War II and the fallen in other wars such as Korea and Vietnam and post-Cold War conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The two world wars are passing from living memory. Wiki has a list of the last surviving World War I veterans in the world. Almost all of them have died since 2000, save for three remaining veterans in Bulgaria, China and Greece. They include: Bright Williams of New Zealand, died 2003, aged 105 years; August Bischof of the former Austrian Empire, 2006, aged 105 years; Erich Kästner of the former German Empire, 2008, aged 107 years; Pierre Picault of France, 2008, aged 109 years; Delfino Borroni of Italy, 2008, aged 110; Yakup Satar of the former Ottoman Empire, 2008, aged 110 years; Mikhail Krichevsky of the former Russian Empire, 2008, aged 111 years; John Campbell Ross of Australia, 2009, aged 109 years; John Babcock in Canada, 2010, aged 109 years; Frank Buckles in the United States, 2011, aged 110 years; Florence Green in the UK, 2012, aged 110 years.
As these Great War contemporaries pass away, members of the so-called Lost Generation, the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation remain the last people alive who can recall World War II. The Baby Boomers, by definition, have no living memory of the Second World War. And perhaps the distinction between those earlier generations and the latter shows how the world wars left an indelible mark on attitude and consciousness. The Boomers point to other conflicts in Korea and Vietnam as having shaped their awareness.
The memorial structure spanning Lyon Street, Ottawa, Canada (click image to enlarge). Image Source: The Man Who Lived Airplanes.
But there was a difference between the world wars and Cold War conflicts - mainly in terms of intensity and extent. The world wars engulfed whole societies and transformed them, and civilians were part of - not distant observers of - conflict. The reason for keeping the memory of the world wars alive is to recall the duty and sacrifice of those who suffered and died - and of those who survived. In downtown Ottawa at the corner of Wellington and Lyon Streets, there is a structure spanning Lyon Street. It features a phalanx relief, designed by the Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. It commemorates the fallen of World War II and bears an inscription from Ecclesiasticus 44:7: ALL THESE WERE HONOURED IN THEIR GENERATIONS AND WERE THE GLORY OF THEIR TIMES. The sentiment is typical of other war memorial markers which dot the post-mid-20th-century landscape in universities, parks, cemeteries, and town squares.
By contrast, during the Cold War, honour, duty and sacrifice were popularly challenged as cardinal wartime ideas. By the 1960s, a new narrative about peace-making had commonly (and politically) replaced the values of conflict. The irony of the later pacifist dialogue is that it fails to recognize that the very observance of earlier post-war attitudes helped preserve the peace, or at least prevent total wars from recurring. Certainly, the reasoned challenge to the rightness of, or need for, bloody sacrifice made sense. Who could do anything but deplore the horrific loss of life and the hellish nightmare of the 20th century? Nevertheless, the hard, living memory that blood had been spilt, and that that really meant something, prevented blood from being spilt again. In War and Peace (1869), which details the French invasion of Russia in the early 19th century, the Old Prince argues that pacifism cannot be reconciled with human nature (a quote I have mentioned before):
Pierre was maintaining that a time would come when there would be no more wars. The old prince disputed it chaffingly, but without getting angry.
"Drain the blood from men's veins and put in water instead, then there will be no more war! Old women's nonsense—old women's nonsense!" he repeated, but still he patted Pierre affectionately on the shoulder, and then went up to the table ... .
This is why, as the world wars pass from living memory, we lose the witnesses who could explain total war from their experiences. If we forget how war appeals to something awful in human nature and how that played out in daily life, we risk the loss of peace while campaigning for it so relentlessly. As the world wars fall to historians, we must try even harder to understand war and why it exists, and to keep an serious eye on the range of values it promotes, not always to celebrate them, but in order to keep that wolf from the door. This is why the epitaphs speak of remembering and respecting sacrifice, even when some cannot rationally agree with it or cannot imagine the much worse alternatives: "If ye break faith with us who die, We shall not sleep, though poppies grow, In Flanders fields."
German World War II air raid siren in Austria (2010). Video Source: Youtube.
Caption for the above video: "Now it is time to present you a further interesting close up siren video of an old German 'Elektror-siren' from WW2-times still in function. Location is in Austria. (here you can see/hear only the low-tone unit with big 3 ports!). And so it has a very deep siren-sound and this is a curious and scary thing when it runs. Sirentone-frequency is at 145 Hz! The test-signal is called 'alarm' (available in Austria) and it has the purpose to warn the population in case of dangers like e.g. chemical accidents. Of course this old siren is still in function to call the firefighters in case of fire."
German WWII air raid siren (2011). Video Source: Youtube.
Hear a Canadian air raid siren from a Youtuber near Nanticoke, Ontario: "Walpole Antique Farm Machinery Assoc. (WAFMA) Members test an old air raid siren at the club. It was used in World War 2. And later was used as a fire siren. This is the first time in 30 years it went off in town and this was the 3rd time setting it off that day. Plus I had the dog with me so I didn't get close to it." (April 2010): embedding disabled - see the video on Youtube.
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