This year, the world that was in large part the stage for that mighty conflict has been bidding adieu to the very last handful of survivors from the armies that fought back and forth across the fields of Flanders and France, on the beaches and bluffs of Gallipoli, the sands of Arabia and Mesopotamia, and both atop and beneath the oceans and seas.
For most of what were then the major world powers, the issues of the time have long been put to rest or pushed aside. They would be superseded and consumed by the second global war of the twentieth century, an even bigger conflagration that began a mere 21 years after the first ended.
But, in Ireland, there is yet a lingering debate over how to deal with the aftermath and legacy of World War 1. And the debate can be summed up in the choice of flower that, at different times of the year, can be worn as an act of remembrance.
One is the Easter Lily, the other the Red Poppy.
For once, the Irish have caught a break on this one inasmuch as the blooms are worn at opposite ends of the year, the Lily at springtime when Easter falls, the Poppy in November, most especially around Armistice Day/Veterans Day.
But could they be worn together?
There was time when that idea would have seemed far-fetched. The Irish who fought in the Great War fought for many reasons. Many believed they were battling for Home Rule, a better Ireland, a freer one.
One who believed this was Tom Kettle, a nationalist MP who was in Belgium seeking arms for those who would fight in the Rising. Not liking what the Germans were doing to “little Belgium,” Kettle put other considerations aside and joined up, only to die two months into the Somme carnage.
Francis Ledwidge, the poet and also a leading nationalist, joined up only to be blown to pieces by a shell while sitting in a shell hole drinking tea.
My own grandfather, and many like him, had a simpler reason. He was told by his employers in Dublin that if he didn’t sign up as one of John Redmond’s National Volunteers he would not have his job when the war was over and won.
And, of course, in the autumn of 1914, the war was going to be, as the popular saying went, “all over by Christmas.”
The reasons for signing up didn’t matter much in the aftermath of the Civil War and the emergence of the Free State, this as a result of other conflicts, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War itself.
The Irish who had fought and died in Flanders had simply fought in the wrong war. As such, they were sidelined, often forgotten, not infrequently ridiculed.
History is what it is; verdicts on it fluctuate.
The men and women of 1916 were villains one minute, heroes the next. Those who marched down Irish streets on the way to the Somme were cheered as they went. And while the sons of Ulster, Munster, Connacht and Leinster who died in that Charnel House of a battle were rightly mourned, those who came back were ultimately given short shrift.
Years later of course, history would start to turn on Pearse and his comrades. So-called “revisionist” historians began to peel away the aura surrounding those who had fought and died in Easter Week.
At the same time, those Irish who had died in World War 1, and they numbered around 50,000, were being viewed in a softer light. Perhaps it was inevitable, and certainly all to the good, that the pendulum would, in time, begin settling in the middle with regard to both.
Today’s Ireland manages, more or less, to dutifully honor the dead of that time no matter where they fought and died, be it Dublin or the Dardanelles.
The ice began to crack more than a decade ago. In 1998, the 80th anniversary of the Great War’s end, President Mary McAleese and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth officially opened a memorial in Messines in Flanders that was called the “Island of Ireland Peace Park.”
Other memorials have been unveiled since, one just three years ago commemorating 131 volunteers from the Fermoy area of County Cork who never came home to an Ireland, free or otherwise.
Lat Sunday, Remembrance Day in Ireland, now both the North and South, and Britain, President McAleese laid a wreath at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin in memory of the Irish dead of World War 1 and also the Irish who perished in World War Two.
Against this backdrop of belated memory, writers are beginning to explore the Irish story of the Great War in some detail. One of them, Philip Orr, penned “Field of Bones,” a eye-opening account of the largely forgotten Irish at Gallipoli.
The Dardenelles campaign is best remembered for the ANZACS, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and the enormous price they paid for Winston Churchill’s Turkish folly.
Yet more than 3,000 Irishmen never came back from Turkey that late summer and early fall of 1915. They rest there still.
Last year was the big one in terms of anniversaries. It marked eight decades since that first eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
This year is an uneven number. But it has also been the one when the last surviving veterans have finally joined their comrades.
You have to wonder what they would say to one another if brought back for one last muster.
With regard to the Irish who died on Irish streets and in French fields it would be a case, perhaps, of taking a cue from those of us today who are responsible for protecting their joint legacy and commemorating all their individual sacrifices.
That would those who now hold a Lily in one hand, a Poppy in the other.