We spent the late-winter weekend touring famous battlefield sites across southeast Belgium. The weather was nice, the conversations were good: its always fun to tour with someone who knows their history, carries the books, and can place all of the events and people into their proper context. I only know the large events of these wars, and it was interesting to focus on the personal narrative histories of the soldiers, especially for World War I. I know that I’ll need to sit down with a good ‘trench-level’ account or novel from the period when things settle down a bit.
One thing that always strikes me about famous battlefields is the overwhelming ordinariness of the places. Waterloo, Bourgogne, Mons, Arnhem: all are pivotal points of great campaigns where tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of men fought. But today they all seem peaceful, empty, wholly nondescript. Standing on hillsides listening to the breeze mingled with the stories being read from the books, I would never know it for looking at it. Some places are just rolling fields, dotted with trees and distant roads. it. Others are simply a bridge along a river, houses nearby with traffic rumbling overhead. Rolling fields, dotted with trees, a river or a road to divide the territory.
The maps point out boundaries and junctions, local centers of supplies that made them important at the time. Others places are more circumstantial, places where troops camped or armies crossed. Today, though, there’s little to mark their significance beyond the stones, flags, and stories.
‘listening to the narratives of conflict and hardship, understanding the ‘who and the ‘where, I’m still always lift with the nagging question ‘why?’.
The buzz becomes particularly acute when visiting cemeteries. I do feel a bit of pride as the tales are told, hearing the heroism of my countrymen and their sacrifice for ideals that I still hold important today. But I also feel a lot of sadness and loss: war to often forces young men to die in pointless skirmishes. After the battles are over, both sides honor their dead together beneath white stone memorials: did there have to be a war at all to bring the two sides together again?
I walk through the the stately rows of graves amidst the quiet grasses. All of those names, their individual character lost into the greater pageant, no hint of what we contributions they might have made had they lived. Mortal combatants are now buried together, the reasons for their skirmishes largely forgotten.
I always feel these memorials as both inspiration and warning. They serve their purpose of honoring and remembering. But, for me, with a son in the service in a world quick to take offense and ready for a fight, its a worrysome reminder as well.