A hundred years ago today the First World War was dragging on with no end in sight. The troops were mired in the mud of the trenches of France and Belgium. It was not a pretty war.
My grandfather fought in that conflict. To honour his memory, each November 11, for as long as I can remember, I have taken the time to pause and pray, considering what was and what we hope will never be again.
Sometimes I have attended ceremonies at the cenotaph, including the national one in Ottawa. Other times I have watched on television. The faces of aging warriors from 1914-19 (and no, that is not a typo – Canadian troops saw action after the official end of the conflict) have been replaced by those who fought from 1939-45. Yet they look the same.
This Remembrance Day is different for me. I’ll still be taking the time to reflect, but I will be in a little town in the Black Forest, Sulzburg, Germany. It is so unknown that Google asks you if you meant Salzburg, which is in Austria.
On my first visit to Sulzburg, right off the plane and pretty jet-lagged, I discovered the town’s cenotaph. I hope I can find it again today. Like those in Canada it is engraved with the names of those who died in the service of their country. A century ago, these were the enemy, the people my grandfather enlisted to fight. Now they are mostly forgotten.
I don’t know if there’s a ceremony at 11 today. I plan to be there whether there is or isn’t, to pray for peace. If there is a ceremony, I will take part, as much as it is possible for me to take part when I don’t know the language.
With the passage of time and the lens of history it seems funny to think of Germans as the enemy. They are our friends today. They probably were then too, at least the average citizen who just wanted to live a peaceful life. Politicians make wars, people don’t. The people are the ones who pay the price.
At the cenotaph in Sulzburg today there will probably be no-one who remembers the people whose names are inscribed as casualties of the Great War. Certainly, those who fought those battles are long gone.
There may be those who remember World War II, give that it is only 72 years since that conflict ended. There may even be some veterans in attendance. I imagine they will look very much like the people who gather at the National War Memorial in Ottawa six hours later. I may see if I can find a stream of that ceremony online.
As fallen humans I suppose it is too much to hope that we have left war behind. Today though, it can be hoped that we at least have learned something from our mistakes.