Today is Veterans Day, also known as Remembrance Day and Armistice Day because in 1918, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, World War One ended.
For four years the nations of the world had torn each other apart. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, the Ottoman Empire was mortally wounded, Germany’s Kaiser’s fell and so did Russia’s Czar. The world changed forever and 20 million people were dead.
There are countless monuments honoring those killed. The most powerful, I think, is this one. It’s called The Grieving Parents and was erected in 1932 by Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist. Kollwitz’s youngest son Peter was killed while serving in the German army. The monument is in the cemetery at Vladslo, Belgium, where he’s buried. The faces of the parents are those of Käthe and her husband. Her husband looks at Peter’s grave while Käthe bends over in grief. So many young men are buried in this cemetery that Peter’s name shares a tombstone with nineteen others.
Whether you’re on the road or staying at home today, there’s probably a war memorial near you where people are remembering the fallen. Take a moment to visit it, even if it’s for the “other side.” After all this time that doesn’t really matter.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
While Navy SEALs normally work in the shadows, they came into the international limelight on May 2 when they killed Osama bin Laden.
Now the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum has seen its daily attendance triple. The museum in Fort Pierce, Florida, documents the history of the SEALs from their humble beginnings in 1943 as the Naval Combat Demolition Teams and Underwater Demolition Teams to the cutting-edge special ops force it is today.
Yet what will surely go down in history as one of the SEAL’s greatest hits isn’t covered by the museum yet. It’s too recent. That will soon change if the museum raises $1.5 million to set up permanent exhibits in its new wing.
On memorial Day about 2,000 people attended services at the museum, and the SEAL team that killed bin Laden got special attention.
“The signal was sent that you cannot attack the U.S. and murder innocent women and children with impunity, that we will find you and get you and win this war,” said Admiral Thomas L. Brown II.
[Photo of SEALs in Afghanistan courtesy U.S. Navy]
Every Memorial Day weekend we remember the soldiers who fought for the United States. For those of us who have never experienced war, however, it’s hard to understand their experiences.
The Witness to War program is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the wartime memories of veterans and helping to give civilians a better idea of what they went through. As their website says, “These are the stories of scared 18 and 19 year olds thrust into circumstances of such intensity and violence, that they became the defining moments of their lives.”
Some are video interviews, like Hap Chandler’s thoughts on his involvement in the Dresden bombing, and Jim Paine’s harrowing memory of being the only survivor when his Jeep ran over a German mine. There are also written memoirs and wartime diaries. Some are short anecdotes while others are more extensive. Tucker Smallwood gives us 23 pages of his gripping Vietnam memoir.
All of the stories Witness to War collects will be donated to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project and other non-profit organizations willing to spread their message.
There’s plenty of reading here and a lot of food for thought. So sometime this Memorial Day, take a break from the cookouts and TV and check this out.
[Photo of American soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge courtesy Wikimedia Commons]
Claude Choules, the last known combat veteran of WWI, has died aged 110. Born in England in 1901, he was too young to enlist in the army when the war broke out in 1914, so he waited until he was 15 and enlisted in the Royal Navy, where he saw service throughout the war.
Unlike most veterans, he liked the service and stayed on. While working as a visiting instructor for the Australian Navy, he fell in love with the country and moved there. When war broke out again he fought for his new country in its navy. He retired after 40 years in service but never stopped being active. At the tender age of 80 he took up writing and penned his memoirs. Over time he became a pacifist and controversially refused to participate in ANZAC Day parades. There’s much more to his story, so check out the link and his memoirs, assuming the book isn’t sold out by now.
Choules fought on the sea, so with no battlefields to visit, where can you see the legacy of WWI’s last combat veteran? A good start would be the museums of the two navies in which he served. The Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth, UK, currently has an exhibition called Sea Your History: 20th Century Royal Navy that shows what life was like aboard naval vessels during the two world wars and beyond. This gives a good insight into what a teenaged Claude Choules had to endure. The Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre at Garden Island Naval Base near Sydney also has displays about life in the navy. I wouldn’t be surprised if both museums make special exhibitions to mark the passing of this remarkable man.
But you don’t have to go to the UK or Australia to see Choules’ legacy. He lived through the most momentous event of the early 20th century. The war changed Europe and the world. The millions of deaths seriously weakened Europe’s hold on their colonies and emboldened independence movements in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The old aristocracy found itself hit hard financially and began to lose their grip on society. Large numbers of women got to work in factories and other “man’s jobs” for the first time, and began to question why they couldn’t vote.
While the First World War wasn’t the sole factor in the end of colonialism or the rise of women’s rights, it was a major one. If you want to see Claude Choules’ legacy, just look around you.
[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]
A fascinating exhibit on life as a POW has opened at The Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, England.
The exhibition, called “Captured: The Extraordinary Life of Prisoners of War”, combines pictures, artifacts, and real-life anecdotes to give a glimpse into the experiences of prisoners of war from all armies during the Second World War (1939-45). It also features the only known film of German POWs in Britain.
While the exhibition focuses on the daily endurance test POWs had to live through, it also examines some of the famous escapes from notorious German prisons such as Colditz. This castle near Dresden housed Allied POWs who had tried to escape from other prisons. The Nazis considered it impossible to escape from. Several POWs saw it as a challenge and proved the Nazis wrong.
This museum junkie has been to many of The Imperial War Museum’s special exhibitions and has always been impressed. They’re always easy to follow and full of surprises and leave you knowing a lot more than when you arrived. At the permanent exhibition in the museum’s London branch, there’s a recording of an interview with a British soldier who survived a Japanese POW camp. He got terrible sores on his legs and didn’t have any medicine to treat them. Knowing that tea is a disinfectant, he pressed tea bags against the sores. This bit of trivia saved his legs and probably his life.
This latest exhibition is one of a series of events marking the 70th anniversary of the start of World War Two. A list of upcoming events at the museum’s five branches is online here,
“Captured: The Extraordinary Life of Prisoners of War” runs until January 3rd, 2010.