On the 28th of June, 1914, the city of Sarajevo in Eastern Europe, which is today the capital of the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was, at the time, the capital of a province of the same name within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In late June of that year it was the site of a royal visit by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, making an official appearance in Sarajevo to greet and be honored by his subjects. There was a parade. And along the route of the parade, hidden in the crowd, were six assassins, armed with bombs, determined to murder Franz Ferdinand in the hopes of separating their region from Austro-Hungarian rule and attaching it to the Kingdom of Serbia instead.
Most of the would-be assassins failed to act. The one who did throw his bomb failed rather badly – damaging a different car entirely, swallowing cyanide too old to do him in, and jumping into the river in the hopes of drowning himself but finding it to be less than half a food deep. He was beaten by the angered crowd assembled for the parade, and arrested. Ferdinand went about the day’s program, listening to one speech and delivering another, before deciding that he ought to visit the wounded in the local hospital. On the way there, his driver got confused and had to turn the car around in the middle of a side street. By pure chance, he did so right in front of a delicatessen which Gavrilo Princip – one of the disappointed assassins – just so happened to be standing outside of. He shot the royal couple dead; Franz and Sophie’s were the first lives lost in what would eventually come to be known as the First World War.
That conflict ended more than four years later, after claiming roughly 18 million lives – 10 million soldiers and 8 million civilians – taken from more than 25 different countries. The war was ended by an armistice, an agreement between the two sides to cease all violence in order to negotiate a lasting peace. The armistice was signed early in the morning on the 11th of November, 1918, but in order to ensure that it would go into effect uniformly, with a minimum of confusion and disorder, the fighting was not set to officially stop until 11 am that day, continental time.
With only minutes left to go, a squad of American soldier happened upon a group of German ones in a town in North-East France names Chaumont-devant-Damvillers. One of those Americans had recently been demoted from sergeant to private – punishment after a censor had caught him writing a letter home complaining to a friend of the miserable conditions at the front and advising him to avoid the draft, if possible. That soldier, Henry Gunther, wanted to prove his bravery in battle, in the hopes of earning back his sergeant stripes. Alone and on his own initiative, he charged the German machine guns. The Germans were watching the clock like everyone else, and tried to wave him off. Henry began to shoot at them with his rifle, and eventually they fired back. Henry Gunther was killed at 10:59 local time on the 11th of November, one hundred years ago today; the last person to die in the First World War.
Today is the 100th anniversary of his death, and the peace which followed it. War is a complicated affair – it is literally the reason for many of humankind’s most elaborate and detailed undertakings. So explaining any war and its reasons for being might be challenging. But the First World War is particularly so. Why was it fought? Because certain nations of Europe were hungry for more territory. Because there were old rivalries and resentments to settle from previous conflicts. Because certain heads of state cared more for their own personal honor than for the lives of their countrymen. Because once the killing really got going it gained a momentum that made it almost impossible to stop. Or perhaps simply this: a little over a century ago, the governments which controlled most of the world charged into the most costly, destructive, and heinous conflict in human history up to that point because they did not hate war enough to seriously attempt to avoid it.
At the outbreak of World War I the Central Powers – the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman Empires – and the powers of the Triple Entente – the French, British, and Russian Empires – declared war on each other. At that time, throughout each of those nations, at least among the leadership classes, the principle attitude towards the mass killing of warfare was that it was a grand and vital opportunity for personal glory and for one generation of young men to prove their courage and to truly become men, in the fullest sense. War, for those who survived it, bonded together those that fought and the nations they served, and for those who died it offered a sort of immortality of noble memory. It was a set of values and ideals that could be summarized by the words William Shakespeare wrote three centuries earlier, dramatizing Henry the V’s speech before his troops on St. Crispin’s Day:
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
And so the war began. It was a cavalcade of mishap, error, of unconscionably terrible military leadership on nearly every side. The pace of technological innovation – the invention of new and horrifyingly effective means for one human being to murder another, or dozens, or hundreds – so far outstripped the abilities of aged commanders to adapt their strategies and philosophies of war. So again and again and again, the lives of soldiers were discarded, en masse, in unwinnable assaults and actions, armies grinding against each other with blood and pain and loss the only definitive result. All war is futile, at its core, for it expends something of infinite value – human life – in pursuit of items of a lesser worth: land; property; ideas. But the First World War seemed uniquely futile, with the frozen lines of the Western Front nearly perfectly unmoved for more than three terrible years, at the cost of millions upon millions dead, simply to hold them in place. And all war is horrible – because the brutal death that it entails cannot be flattered out of its own ugly truth. But the First World War seemed particularly horrible, as the relatively new means of machine guns, mortar fire, and mustard gas, killed human beings in new and ever more gruesome ways.
Initially, confronted by the futility and the horror of the war they were trapped into fighting, the enlisted men on all sides developed the habit which their commanding officers detested above all others: they went out of their way not to kill the enemy. Recognizing the common humanity between themselves and the soldiers of another nation’s uniform on the other side of the wire, the French, British, and German troops of the Western Front kept allowing small pockets of peace to break out during the first year of the war. But these wildcat armistices and small acts of rebellion were not enough to end the conflict entirely, and eventually a new ethos emerged to shore up military ethic which the old ideals of glory and valor no longer seemed to support. Once the killing had begun in earnest, the terrible weight of all that death became a justification to continue in itself. You can hear that message in what is perhaps the most famous poem written during and about the First World War:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The author of those words was a Canadian physician and soldier named John McCrae. He died of pneumonia, while commanding a field hospital near Boulogne, France in the last year of the war.
For glory and gain for themselves, from an obligation to their fallen comrades, for love of homeland, and for hatred of the enemy; these are the factors – in some combination – which compel a person or a nation to war. A different soldier-poet of the First World War, the British Edward Thomas, wrote about those last two components – love and hate – and how closely intertwined they are:
This is no case of petty right or wrong
That politicians or philosophers
Can judge. I hate not Germans, nor grow hot
With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.
Beside my hate for one fat patriot
My hatred of the Kaiser is love true:—
A kind of god he is, banging a gong.
But I have not to choose between the two,
Or between justice and injustice. Dinned
With war and argument I read no more
Than in the storm smoking along the wind
Athwart the wood. Two witches’ cauldrons roar.
From one the weather shall rise clear and gay;
Out of the other an England beautiful
And like her mother that died yesterday.
Little I know or care if, being dull,
I shall miss something that historians
Can rake out of the ashes when perchance
The phoenix broods serene above their ken.
But with the best and meanest Englishmen
I am one in crying, God save England, lest
We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed.
The ages made her that made us from dust:
She is all we know and live by, and we trust
She is good and must endure, loving her so:
And as we love ourselves we hate our foe.
Thomas died in 1917, killed in the Battle of Arras, in France. He had been a friend to the young Robert Frost; Thomas’ favorable review helped Frost to gain early attention for his work. And so Frost wrote of his lost friend, and what it means to die in war, and to mourn those who have:
I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,
I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.
I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained—
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.
You went to meet the shell’s embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you—the other way.
How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?
Ten million soldiers, not all of them poets, gave their lives in the conflict between empires. Beginning with the crowned heads of Europe and ending, not that long, actually, after the arrival of American forces on European soil. A war this count spent much effort trying to stay out of but which it was inevitably drawn into as well. If I seem unkind towards the exercise of armed conflict, I do not wish to be misunderstood and taken to mean that I believe it was never necessary. While pacifism is certainly “in bounds” for us as Unitarian Universalist and I am happy to point to certain ardent pacifists of our lineage and defend the current conscientious objectors of our faith, I am not in their number. I am confident and sadly sure that there are sometimes times when war is a necessity. But because a thing is necessary does not make it right. Sometimes what is called for, what is unavoidable, still is wrong. And the taking of even one human life is wrong. So doing so at a grand and industrial scale is all the more so.
And now we’ll listen for the bell…
[Church bells ring for the anniversary of the armistice.]
…When the First World War ended, the primary architects of its ending dreamed of a lasting peace. They were completely in conflict about how to attain that peace, you understand. They had radically different views about what should be done about Germany in specific. About the prospect of future conflict on the continent of Europe. Whose arms should be limited or not, who owed whom money, who should be entitled to their own country after all was said and done, and who should not. Each side was so determined, it seems to me, to meet their own particular goals, and so unwilling to consider the larger goal of the greater good, that their peace, as planned, in retrospect seemed always destined to fail, as it did with the outbreak of the Second World War. The First in fact, has sometimes been described as a prelude to the Second or the means by which the Second was accomplished, almost as if the armistice was simply a temporary lull in an ongoing conflict that didn’t truly end until 1945.
It reminds me of the famous words of William Butler Yates, “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Those words, you probably already know, come from his most famous poem, The Second Coming. That poem, according to one analysis of text on the internet saw a sudden increase in use in 2016. In that year its words were invoked roughly 30 times more than in any previous year for decades before. Something about the political upheaval of that year brought its idea of post-war chaos more relevantly to the fore.
For those of us who believe that there is no such thing as a right war – perhaps a necessary one, but never a right war – this can sometimes exist as a separation between us and those who fight the wars, the veterans whom we rightly honor today. If you are feeling that separation, from one side or the other, I want to remind you of the words of a certain Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Han, of Vietnam, who said, in part:
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
In any society of people, all benefit and all pay the cost of wars between nations. There is no hiding from it, despite what our theological ancestor Adin Ballou would have liked to imagine, one cannot truly cordon oneself off from the transaction, conduct, and prosecution of war. Keeping this in mind, particularly if you believe as I believe, that war is a terrible burden for those who conduct it, it seems to me especially our duty to honor those who return home from the conflict, because they have paid a price on all of our behalf’s. Not in dying as their comrades did, but in living with the reality of having taken part in something as terrible as war.
Several years ago I was in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, and purely by coincidence I happened to be there on Armistice Day, what’s called Veteran’s Day here and Remembrance Day, there. My hotel was a short walk to the War Memorial which is just next to Parliament Hill. It was covered in flowers and surrounded by people just staring at it. It was perfectly quiet and solemnly beautiful. But on the way to the War Memorial, I passed what is called the Valiants Memorial, a small row of statues and busts of heroes from the armed conflicts fought by previous generations. They’ve had fewer wars than we have, so the list was shorter than I was used to.
I encountered there people I didn’t know, because I didn’t know the war heroes of another country, but I did recognize the names of most of the conflicts. I saw statues of people from the Second World War and thought, well, I’m used to seeing statues from the Second World War. I encountered people from the First World War and thought, yes, I am used to seeing statues dedicated to the First World War. And then I came to the figures associated with the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War, and I recognized that for the first time these names were being celebrated for their facility at murdering my countrymen. US and Canadian troops fought on the same side in World Wars 1 & 2, but not so a couple of centuries earlier. It gave me some pause, looking at a statue of Thayendanegea. He was Mohawk who fought on the British side during the American Revolutionary War. He was such an able commander that most of the people who fought alongside him were not other Haudenosaunee people, not other Native people but whites who were so impressed with his skills as a commander that they were ready to take orders from a Man of Color at a time and in a place that was not known for its enlightened racial understanding. He was also known as Monster Brandt, using his English surname, in the lore of the American patriot forces.
Another one of the statues was for Laura Secord. Laura was a woman who heroically, in the Canadian understanding, walked alone for miles and miles and miles in order to warn British forces of a surprise attack by the Americans into Canada. She was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, her father fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War, but she married a loyalist, moved across the border into Canada and ended up becoming a hero on the other side of the conflict in the War of 1812.
As I was thinking about this, about what it meant to be standing among the memorials to the honored dead of the other side of a conflict on my own country’s day for honoring veterans, I noticed that actually the earliest statues in the set of the Valiant’s Memorial are entries for the French Regime. There’s a set of statues set aside to honor those French war heroes who fought valiantly against the British. That is, people who are now Canadians who fought against other Canadians, in the retrospect of history. Even that war memorial contained that contradiction of celebrating people who at one time had murdered other people whose descendants might then be looking upon the memorial.
If there is to be an end to war, as was dreamt on the 11th of November, 1918, it will come about only where and if we can, like that particular war memorial, like the words of Thich Nhat Han, hold the truth that we are all bound up together. That we all share this earth and this life and we are not separate from one another, no matter the illusion of nation or boundary. No matter the color of our uniform. No matter how great our grievances against each other’s nations. No matter how angry we are at the death of our friends. War is a human construct; it will only be ended by human means. This Veteran’s Day, this Armistice Day, let us honor the sacrifices made before by rededicating ourselves to the hope that in the future such sacrifices will no longer be required of anyone. Amen.