An extraordinary sight is building in the drained moat that surrounds the Tower of London, a sea of ceramic poppies as a memorial to those who fought and died for Britain in World War I. The war began a hundred years ago this week and lasted for four long, agonizing years, until Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. By that time, no fewer than 888,246 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines had given their lives for king and country. A whole generation of young men had been wiped out. By Armistice Day this year, there will be a poppy for each and every one of them, filling the sixteen acres of the moat.
The poppy became the symbol of the war dead thanks to Colonel John McCrae’s magnificent poem, “In Flanders Fields,” perhaps the most famous work of literature ever written by a Canadian. McCrae, a doctor, was worn out by overwork in the hospitals that treated the wounded. In January, 1918, he contracted pneumonia and died. He, too, lies today in Flanders fields.
Although the war started a century ago, we still live deep in its shadow, for it was, in George Kennan’s phrase, “the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century.” For the 75th anniversary of this country’s entrance into that war, I wrote an article for American Heritage magazine about the consequences of that war for Western civilization. Although written 22 years ago, I think it holds up well and I commend it to your attention.