November 11th is known as Armistice Day in some countries (such as in Belgium and France) or Rememberance Day (as it is known in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth nations). The date commemorates the 1918 armistice with Germany which marked the end of the First World War. As a non-native European I didn’t fully understand why the First one took precedence over the Second, when the latter cause a lot more bloodshed and destruction. It was only a couple of years after arriving in Belgium I truly understood.
The Great War as it is also known, was the first of its kind. For starters it was the first “global” conflict of sorts. It did not include every single country in the world, but some of the world’s superpowers fought on it. The death toll was huge, but when looking at the actual numbers, it doesn’t even make it to the top 5 deadliest wars. But it did achieve to kill millions (at the lowest estimate, 15,000,000) in a span of 4 years, 3 months and 2 weeks. Some of the wars at the top of the list accrued such numbers in a span of decades.
What makes this war special is that it was a game changer in warfare. War is never pretty, but previous conflicts still relied on man to man combat, weapons did not have the capacity to inflict large scale casualties, and in fact, it almost seemed like a rather dignified affair to engage into. When I first visited the In Flanders Fields Museum in the city of Ypres, Belgium, I remember reading accounts of young men who rushed to enlist in the war and spent months preparing for the glory of battle. They ate, sang, and wrote letters, not knowing of what was coming.
World War I introduced brand new warfare tactics, which many in the front lines were not ready for. Modern artillery included machine guns, tanks, and other automatic weapons. It was the beginnings of submarines and military aviation. The war was fought in trenches surrounded by barb wire. When young boys enlisted en masse to fight, they only knew of 19th century tactics, fighting with the enemy with bayonets; the deadliest weapon was a cannon. What they found was, aside from the horrors of modern weaponry, was the nightmare of poison gas (mustard and chlorine, for example). Ypres is one of the first places where gas was used. Some of the deadliest battles were fought there, too.
And that’s why November 11th is so important around here. It is a reminder that, when we really put our minds into it, humans can be truly, truly horrible beings.