World War One ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, and we use November 11th to honor those who served in the military. Given my background, I’ve had quite a few opportunities to visit different hallowed grounds around the globe, some planned, and a few discovered when lost.
About eight years ago, a meandering drive took me from Germany, through Luxembourg, and into eastern France. It’d happened before, me getting lost on the roads which traversed European countries. Relying on a false confidence in my French skills, I continued on an unknown path, knowing that at some point I’d discover, at a minimum, a culinary delight in a roadside café. What I found had nothing to do with food yet filled me with awe.
A foreboding tower, built in art deco fashion, loomed ahead of me, and like in any gothic novel, the structure drew me in instead of frightening me away. When I got to it, I realized two large wings sat on either side of the tower. On a gentle slope behind it, rows and rows of white crosses appeared—and I knew the pattern, all too familiar in places like the Punchbowl and Arlington. I’d stumbled onto a military cemetery.
This one stood apart from most because it sat on the Battlefield of Verdun, a seven-square-mile piece of land where France and Germany fought for three hundred days in 1916, where 310,000 soldiers were wounded, 160,000 remain missing, and 230,000 died. This place was the largest French military cemetery of World War One, and the stone structure, called the Douaumont Ossuary, contained the remains of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers.
How interesting that after such a devastating war, a memorial housed the remains of both sides, and that less than a decade after its dedication, another war between the same foes would occur along the same battle lines. No, not interesting, but sad.
The tower, called the Lantern of the Dead, shines a light that sweeps across the battlefield at night, a beacon to the missing who after a hundred years still lay buried in collapsed trenches or filled craters. Yes, Veterans Day is a time to honor our family and friends who served, but it is also a time to remember those unknowns who still lay upon a battlefield, or in a ship or plane. Some may say Veterans Day is to show appreciation for those still living, but I would argue that on the day living veterans pay their respects to those who fell, too.