Commemorating World War I: Past and Future

Today the United States World War I Centennial Commission is scheduled to announce which one of five finalists has been selected for the new WWI national memorial in Washington, DC. (The commission announced today that it would wait until January 25th to reveal the winner.)

To learn more about the five designs and the larger context of WWI commemoration, read “We Will Remember Them,” an essay by our own Prof. Chris Gehrz that was published last Friday by Books & Culture.

In it, Prof. Gehrz makes several references to the Bethel University travel course (HIS230L) that he and Prof. Sam Mulberry will again be leading in January 2017. For example:

Every other January, my colleague Sam Mulberry and I take a group of students to Europe, where we spend three weeks learning about the history of World War I in a few of the places it affected: Flanders and the Somme, London and Paris, Munich and Oxford. As we journey, we encounter myriad attempts to make meaning of an impossibly complicated story. More often than any other symbol or text, we see three words: “Lest we forget.”

Sign in St Paul's Churchyard: "Lest We Forget, 1914-1918/2014-2018"
There was evidence of the WWI centenary everywhere in London, including this sign in front of St Paul’s

On a centenary poster outside St Paul’s Cathedral: “Lest we forget.” On a simple wooden cross in a Belgian field, placed by English footballers where their ancestors turned No Man’s Land into a makeshift pitch during the famous Christmas Truce of 1914: “Lest we forget.” On tens of thousands of gravestones in Commonwealth cemeteries, where other words failed grieving families given the option of writing an epitaph: “Lest we forget.”

At first glance, the phrase can seem rote, unnecessary. Surely a world war—fought by 65 million people and involving far more—cannot pass from the memory of anyone who experienced it, or heard about its glories and horrors second hand. Nor from the collective memory of a community broken, defined, or otherwise affected by it.

And yet, we forget. Time marches forward, carrying our attention with it. The complicated riches of contemplating the past don’t stack up against the urgent needs of the present and the terrifying anxieties or tantalizing possibilities of the future.

So like the poet Laurence Binyon, watching the first Tommies cross the English Channel in 1914, people for a hundred years have pledged themselves against their nature:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Students: if you’re interested in going on the January 2017 WWI trip, check back in March, when further details are announced.

Advertisements

One thought on “Commemorating World War I: Past and Future”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s