Thursday, August 7, 2014

Sometimes We Need to Learn Something While We Travel

It's sobering how many people have lost touch with what my generation has always called the great generation.  I spend so much time listening to everyone talk politics and who's a bad leader/who's a good leader.  I see a generation that worries more about germs than germ warfare.  They worry more about their smart phones than they do about liberty or food.  I see a generation that doesn't have a personal connection with the great generation and I find that a real shame.

When I was young and my grandparents were still around, they used to tell me all the tales of what my grandfather did during the war.  They talked about WWII almost fondly and that struck me as strange.  Being born during the days of Vietnam, I had learned that war was bad.  That politicians were crooked and that we should all be at peace and never raise arms against one another.  I've spent my adulthood watching terrorism confuse whatever issue was left in the world of warfare.  We've lost our way in some ways.  We worry about things that don't really matter.  We forget that our ancestors were fighting for their right to live.

We watch James Bond dealing with Blofeld and other characters that want to rule the world and we see entertainment.  The people who had their landscape permanently altered by the bombs of countries run by tyrants who wanted to take over the world for real might have a different perspective.  Their tyrants were real.  Their battles were a matter of life and death.  They saw the world differently than we did.  I think that sometimes we should all take a little time off and see what our forefathers saw.

So, the area is northern France and Belgium.  This is a land rich with museums, monuments, tunnels, and cemeteries that will teach you an awful lot about World War I.  It was called the Great War.  The War to End All Wars.  Unfortunately it was only the first.  The war raged from 1914 to 1918 and millions died.  That sounds staggering since today if a thousand soldiers die, it's a tragedy.  Millions.  Staggering.


Flanders Fields, Essex Farm, now a memorial cemetery to fallen soldiers of WWI.  It's just outside of Ypres, one of the most devastated areas in all of Europe during the war.  Little known fact here:  In Flanders Fields, a poem by John McCrae, was a very well known piece following the war.  It was so poignant that it is the source of those poppies that you get when you donate to the veteran's on Memorial Day.  That poem is the reason that poppies are the symbol for veterans.  Didn't know that did you?

Verdun, France is a lovely place; full of culture and beauty.  During WWI it was the site of the bloodiest battle of the whole war.  Most of the area was blown to bits.  They have a huge cemetery there as well.  Interestingly enough Douamont Ossuary isn't far from there.  The Ossuary holds over 100,000 bones from soldiers that they couldn't separate to identify the individuals.  There are German soldier's bones as well as allied soldier's bones all together.  It was the best that they could do after the damage had been done.


They put them all together in one building so that the families could visit, even if they didn't know who was who.

The landscapes were shattered by trenches and by bombs.  The troops lived in tunnels in order to survive.  We hear these tales all the time about the people in Vietnam, but you never hear the stories of the French having to do the same exact thing in WWI.  In Vauquois, both sides tunneled under a ridge that they were fighting over.  The battle to some extent took place inside the ridge.

The Sacred Way was a road that the troops fought over for months.  The battle of Verdun lasted 300 days.  The fact that anyone survived the war is amazing.  The United States didn't even get into it until the last minute.  In Fromelles, the Australians lost a record number of soldiers.  There's a lot to learn.


I normally talk about light and fun things, but I think that deep down inside there's a historian in a lot of us.  As I grew older, I began to wonder what it was like for my grandparents.  I started to get more interested in history.  In Europe, you will find that history is everywhere.  They have monuments and museums, battlefield tours and cemeteries everywhere.  There's a reason for that.  They once had to fight for their right to live.  We all know about the Holocaust, and it was an amazingly horrible event, but the Jewish folks weren't alone in those days.  Entire countries were fighting for their right to survive.  They were desperate times.  They will be remembered forever.  But, we should take the time to learn about it.

I've spent a lot of time recently listening to people talk about what they're entitled to.  Our ancestors had to fight for it.  They didn't get anything because they were entitled to it.  There were real demons who were trying to take over the world and ruin cultures.  There were real Dr. Evil's out there and someone had to stop them.  Thousands of people lost their lives--thousands and thousands so that we could sit around and complain about what we're entitled to.  So the next time you go to a museum and run across a volunteer that can tell you first hand what it's like to fight oppression, maybe you should open you mind, take the time and listen.

We are at the 100th anniversary of WWI.  Northern France and Belgium were ground zero in that one.  Take the time to visit these amazing places from Cambrai to Fromelles to Vauquois to Verdun to Ypres and pay your respects to those who died so that we could remain free.

I will leave you with a little something lite.  Every summer they have a festival outside Cambrai where they fly vintage airplanes.  It's called La Ferte Alais, and even the Red Baron himself shows up to fly for the spectators.  It's a lot of fun, and you may even get to go for a ride.  Take a tour or go on your own.  This area is rich with history and culture, with a constant reminder that they would all speak German if it weren't for the bravery of the people who fought WWI.

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