Died in Vain

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – the ending of the War to End All Wars.  Thousands of hopeful, youthful, energetic, and ambitious young men went off to fight in the Great War.  Most never returned; those who did were never the same afterwards.  Why did they go?  After a couple years it was clear the devastating impact the fighting had on the soldiers, but still many volunteered and went off to fight.  Why would they?

Some did it for King and country, others for the money, some for the adventure, but most went for the hope that this truly would be the “war to end all wars.”  So many fought and died for this idea, believing their sacrifice would save future generations from having the same pain they did.

We look back on “the Great War” and refer to it as “World War One” because less than twenty years later Germany had begun what we refer to as “World War Two.”  To us, in our modern perspective, the two wars are connected, and it is rare to consider one without the other.  But to those who lived, fought, died, suffered, waited, endured the first war – it was all with the hope that it would be the last one, that there would be no more war.  To them, it was the Great War.  No number, no “world war” title; it simply was “the Great War, the War to End All Wars.”  When armistice was called at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (11:00, 11 November 1918) the world sighed in relief – it was finally over.  Peace, at last.

Or at least it was supposed to be.  That was supposed to be the end of “buying the farm” for young soldiers – a phrase originating in the World Wars, meaning a young soldier had died.  (The money his family would be paid for his death was frequently used to pay for the family farm).  Look at us now, almost a century after the “War to End All Wars” ended.  When the church bells in Europe ring out the eleventh hour on 11 November 2011, will there be no warring, no fighting across the world?  Have we really learned anything, or did those men all die in vain?  Is their sacrifice truly worth that little to us?

There is a small town in Poland with a very unique tune that plays from the church tower.  It is centuries old, and although it is now done electronically, the tradition has remained in place since the Middle Ages.  The story goes like this: one day a young trumpeter saw the enemy’s army approaching the town walls and knew he had to raise the alarm.  Sounding the bells properly would have taken too long, so he climbed to the top of the church tower and played out his warning on his trumpet.  Before he was able to finish he was shot through the throat with an arrow.  He died, but the town was warned and they were able to fight off the attack.  Since then, the tune is always stopped at the same point he had been stopped, to forever remind all future generations of his sacrifice. 

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