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One hundred years ago today, the Allied Supreme Commander, Marshal Foch, declared the general order, "hostilities will cease on the whole front [as from November at 11 o’clock],” on the 11th month of 1918.
There was silence after 52 months of war. There was silence after millions of deaths. There was the silence of peace when the guns stopped firing.
This is not my first time at Flanders Field. Thirty years ago, in 1988, I visited when I was an Olmsted Scholar at the University of Strasbourg, like my friend Skip.
In 2007, interestingly, I returned with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, and his wife, Deborah. We flew all night from the United States of America to land in Brussels. This was going to be his first military committee meeting with the chairman of the military and all of the chiefs of defense of Europe at NATO Headquarters in Brussels.
But instead of going to a hotel and going to bed, Admiral Mullen and Deborah said, "We are coming here," because they had not seen this place, and they wanted to come to this place, and share the solitude with the men who died here.
Admiral Mullen's journey was a reflection of my favorite quote by Sir Isaac Newton, "I can see further now because I've stood on the shoulders of giants."
I often reflect on this war and that quote, in particular due to my family connection -- my own family connection to the continent.
Although I stand before you today as a United States Navy admiral, my roots are firmly entrenched in Europe. My grandfathers were here. I'm a Scot. They fought on the Western Front as members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. They fought in the trenches from '14 to '18.
Harold won the Croix de Guerre avec Palme for action at Courcelette.
James was awarded the King George Military Cross at Bourlon Wood. James was battlefield promoted from private to brevet captain because of attrition in the ranks during the four years of war.
Harold's diary from World War I is in my office in Naples, prominently displayed along battlefield militaria that both of my grandfathers picked up in the First and Second World War.
If you'd indulge me, I'd like to share with you some short excerpts from my Grandfather Harold's view of life on the Western Front.
The first entry, 1 January 18, quote, "After three years of war, I've finally decided to write a journal," unquote.
25 January 18, quote, "A gas shell fell near us and filled our area. We were wearing our respirators for a long time," unquote.
March 4th, 1918, quote, "Today, a big raid. We were all in our positions, 100 in the line. Germans came through. Almost all were killed," unquote.
Last night, my wife and I attended an incredible play called "Journey's End: by R.C. Sherriff in Ypres, or as my grandfathers called it, Wipers. It was compelling, seven men in the trenches. No one survived.
As you can see, Harold fought with his comrades throughout the harrowing experience, after harrowing experience in the trenches lying next to him. We struggled to reconcile the brutality of the scale of World War I. Events like today help me and hopefully help you [place this global atrocity into context].
We find [ourselves on a hallowed battle] field of the Ypres-Lys Offensive. [The majority of the 368 headstones] are for the men who died during the last days of the war. Seven died on that last day, who are buried here. The secluded recesses of the cemetery represent the four American divisions who fought in Belgium. More than 81,000 U.S. servicemen died in Europe, including 1,043 on Belgian soil.
American expeditionary forces led by General Black Jack Pershing crossed the Atlantic, landed in France and joined Allied armies, sometimes under command of foreign commanders. The 37th and 91st Divisions fought under the command of King Albert I of Belgium on this very ground. They fought with esprit de corps. They fought with warrior ethos.
Major General Degoutte, commander of the French VI Army, shared the following praise, quote, "I found the same spirit of duty and discipline freely given in the 37th and 91st Divisions of the United States Army which brings about valiant soldiers and victorious armies. Glory to such troops and to such commanders. They have bravely contributed to the liberation of a part of Belgian territory and to final victory. The great nation to which they belong can be proud of them," unquote.
We join the silent heroes whose headstones are standing here today.
One of those headstones is a United States Navy sailor. I want to tell his story this morning, since I am an admiral in the United States Navy.
Kenneth MacLeish, son of a Scottish immigrant, like me, left Yale University to serve in the war. He enlisted as a Navy electrician, second class petty officer on 26 March 1917. Subsequently received his wings and a commission in the Naval Reserve Flying Corp.
In France, he participated in many raids over enemy lines. On 14 October his plane, a Sopwith Camel, was shot down and Lieutenant MacLeish was forced to crash land.
It was not until the day after Christmas that his body was found, lying just as it had fallen, with every evidence that death had been instantaneous.
His brother, Archibald MacLeish, Archie, who also interrupted his studies to fight in the war, wrote a poem. Later, he won three Pulitzer Prizes. I want to read that poem today about his brother, "Fortune and Men's Eyes."
This other's afterward --
after the Armistice, I mean, the floods,
the weeks without a word. That foundered
farmyard is in Belgium somewhere.
That faceless figure on its back, the helmet buckled,
wears what looks like Navy wings. A lengthened shadow
falls across the muck about its feet.
Kenneth was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for distinguished service and extraordinary heroism.
In 1919, the destroyer USS MacLeish, DD-220, was named in his honor. As a vanguard U.S. naval aviator, his courage and dedication live on in his prolific writings as well as his brother's poetry.
We trust these heroes find solace in knowing that the world they bequeath to us was worth their sacrifice. Now it is up to all of us to keep their memory.
Those who forged victory in World War I reach out in spirit to today's young patriots, like these Boy Scouts and these Girl Scouts who came to be with us today.
They are still fighting for the freedom in distant lands, giving themselves so that others may have a brighter future. We're honored to be able to call such men and women, past and present, Americans, Belgians, friends; Americans who joined their allied brothers and sisters to demonstrate unequal resolve, to combat tyranny, and in doing so inspired the formidable NATO alliance we maintain today.
We are inspired by their service, and humbled by their sacrifice.
In the memorial building behind me, doves of peace fly toward a lighted lamp on the ceiling mosaic. As we pause each morning each November to give thanks to those who left us too soon, we have the peace of mind to remember the ground under our feet is the very ground these heroes fought to free, the same earth they died to free.
As the brother of Kenneth, Archie MacLeish wrote, "A poem should not mean, but be."
We will soon hear another poignant poem, one of my favorites, written by a Canadian, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, that captures this existential essence.
As part of the same Canadian Expeditionary Force as my grandfathers Harold and James, John McCrae was a surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade. At Ypres Salient in 1915, one death particularly affected McCrae, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer of Ottawa. He was a friend. He was a former student. He was killed by a shell burst. In the absence of a chaplain, McCrae performed the funeral ceremony.
The next day, on May 3rd, McCrae sat at the back of an ambulance parked near his dressing station, a few hundred yards north of Ypres in a place called Essex Farm. I visited this place yesterday in quite solitude and reflection. It was there that he composed 15 lines of poetry.
On every November 11th as a kid I can remember my father reciting that poem from memory, and being told by his father how important it was. Together in this cemetery, at this centenary, a young Scout will bring John McCrae's poem to life once again.
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