Today, our BVP 2019 recipients visited the Mons Memorial Museum and the St-Symphorien cemetery where both German and Commonwealth soldiers are buried. In the afternoon, they went to Cambrai to visit the cathedral in front of which Lily and Rose made a presentation on the daily lives of soldiers. Finally, they visited the Bourlon Wood Canadian War Memorial. (Please note: participants will blog in their language of preference).
Something that has struck me about my time here in Belgium and France with the BVP 2019 is the way different cultures and linguistic groups function together in such proximity. This is a concept that I have been considering throughout the visits to memorials, monuments, and museums. When visiting the St-Symphorien cemetery today, I was shocked by the landscaping. It was very effective; dare I say beautiful. Over the program we have visited both Commonwealth and German cemeteries. There are vast differences in the styles of them, reflecting each country`s respective attitude about the result of the war. However, in St-Symphorien, both the victorious white commonwealth headstones and the manicured gardens were combined with the darker German stones and towering trees. The cemetery was very effective, it was powerful, but it was melancholy. This combination of landscaping, for me, represents the true result of the war. Nobody won. Germans died alongside Commonwealth soldiers, and they were commemorated together. I wonder how the Belgian people feel about this combination cemetery, as many protested the German cemeteries, but are so welcoming of the Commonwealth ones, due to the liberation. What I have learned today, is that you cannot draw boxes around people in life or death and expect them to fit in.
During the day, we visited Bourlon Wood Memorial. There we broke into small groups to discuss our opinions on when the First World War truly ended. While many would say that the war ended with the Armistice in November 1918, our group discussed opinions. I see the end of the war as a process like throwing a rock into a pond. The initial splash and noise are similar to the chaos of the actual combat aspect of the war. Next the water that was thrown up in the splash comes down, like how it took a little bit of time for allied politicians to decide how to proceed after the war with the Treaty of Versailles. Finally, there are the ripples which radiate out for some time after the rock has settled. This is similar to the long-lasting effects the war had on different groups of people. For example, after the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had to pay large reparations to the wining allied counties. This left the German economy in ruins for years and in turn contributed to Hitler’s rise to power. Another example is of the strong anti-German sentiment that existed in many communities that had been occupied by the Germans during the war. During our visit to the Mons Memorial Museum our guide told us about some women accused of collaboration with the Germans and who were publicly humiliated after the war by having their hair cut off. Visiting these towns and cities and hearing the stories of the people here has given me a new perspective on the war and the people who live here.
Today we visited the St. Symphorien Military Cemetery, a place where both Germans and Commonwealth soldiers are commemorated. It is a place of mourning, where fallen soldiers had been honored and remembered, irrespective of their background.
Today, I would distinctly remember one moment. As I walked through this graveyard I couldn’t help but notice two rows of stones that had been placed on opposite sides of a path. Looking at one side, I could see the names of the first soldiers who died in the First World War. Looking at the other side, I could see the names of those who had died four years later, just prior to armistice. The deaths of these soldiers marked the beginning and end of the First World War. These soldiers had different pasts, had different lives ahead of them, yet their paths, cut short by the tragedies of war, seemed to have somehow led them to the same resting place. Walking in between these rows of gravestones, it was almost as if I could see these rows and rows of soldiers standing by me. It was emotionally moving.
The 513 soldiers honored in this cemetery comprised only a fraction of all those who lost their lives to the war. The First World War was costly, paid for by the deaths of millions, and it is up to us to remember them.