Today marks the last time we can remember the 1918 World War I armistice within a century of its realisation.
This is the 99th anniversary of the cessation of hostilities on foot of an order from Marshal Ferdinand Foch. “Hostilities will cease on the entire front on November 11, at 11am, French time,” went Foch’s message after he concluded the armistice with a delegation from the defeated German government. It is another tragedy of that terrible conflict that it was believed, for a time at least, to be the war to end all wars. In just over two decades that catastrophe needed the qualification of a Roman numeral — I — to distinguish it from another catastrophe.
In London, Lloyd George assured the Commons that the armistice had ended “the cruelest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind,” saying, “I hope we may say that thus, this fateful morning, came to an end all wars.’’
In Washington, President Wilson, who had led America into the war to “make the world safe for democracy”, declared: “Everything for which America fought has been accomplished. It will now be our fortunate duty to assist by example, by sober, friendly counsel and by material aid in the establishment of just democracy throughout the world.”
Lloyd George’s hope was expressed in the euphoria of a victory achieved at an incalculable price. Anyone touched by the war must have believed that humanity could never again inflict such horrors on itself. It was a noble sentiment but unequal in man’s relentless lust for domination. That, in Paris in that moment of euphoria, Clemenceau hailed the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine may have seemed entirely natural to the French — they could not have known that Alsace and Lorraine would become a cause celebre for a rearmed and strident Germany in such a short time. Indeed, subsequent wars prompted America to, in 1954, recognise that the war to end all wars might never be fought. Armistice Day was renamed Veterans’ Day and it has been marked as such ever since.
A similar realignment of pomp and tragedy played out, even if in a very minor key, in Ireland this week. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar did what most of his predecessors did not or could not do when wore a shamrock poppy — a new Irish solution to an old Irish problem — in the Dáil in memory of the 29,000 Irish men who died in WWI. His predecessors’ reticence was a legacy of our own struggle with the British army during WWI but it is nevertheless sad that it has taken almost a century to reach this point of reconciliation.
Those who died to make our world a better place will be remembered this weekend but unless we apply the lessons their tragedies offer to our lives we condemn their sacrifice to the flag-waving-and-cheers category of history. The EU demand that Britain accepts that Northern Ireland — Ireland’s Alsace and Lorraine — might remain inside the EU customs union and single market to avert a hard border seems an obvious response but it represents a huge challenge for some of our NI neighbours. That suggestion has the capacity to stir fading embers. How we all respond will show how we have, or have not, absorbed lessons won at such a very high cost.
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