100 is a number with powerful effect upon the imagination. It is the first occasion in ascending order where three numerical digits make sense. From Roman times the century as a description for this number has been applied conceptually in several areas of life. The name belonged to the military realm denoting the number of soldiers under a command, but it has become variously a standard measure of time, a sporting record, and a standard for naming, notably such things as the century egg, a cricketing score century, the Buick Century automobile, and Century City.
Numerically the origin of its significance lies with the decimal numbering system which over time has become the dominant counting system. Probably originating with the numeration of the ten digits shared between a pair of normal human hands, most of the world today counts in groups of ten.
One hundred years ago today Allied forces in Europe signed an armistice with representatives of the German government to end the Great War which became knows as World War I. The commemoration of the signing of the armistice has taken place every year since at the time when it took effect, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. It is remembered as Armistice Day, commemorated in the United States as Veterans Day, and throughout the British Commonwealth as Remembrance Day. As a boy I well remember the two minutes of silence observed at 11am, fifteen minutes after our worship service had begun on the Sunday closest to the 11th November. My mother could remember when road traffic halted for two minutes at that moment of commemoration.
The Great War was first remembered as the War to End all Wars, such were the horrors in collective memory. Its origins lay in residual animosity between France and Germany issuing from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the ensuing emergence of the German State, mingled with statecraft since the 1880s between European powers competing for spheres of influence in Africa and elsewhere. It can also be viewed as a royal family feud, as heads of state, many descended from Britain’s Queen Victoria, allowed their petty differences to overflow in armed conflict.
Along with World War II, memories of wartime suffering were part of the collective memory of my family as I was growing up. So many relatives and neighbors had fought or lost loved ones to the fighting. My father, in his fifties when I was born, had grown up in London. He remembered hearing the massive explosion in 1917 when 50 tons of TNT exploded to destroy the Silvertown munitions factory at the cost of 73 lives. He also recalled being taken to visit his half-brother, twenty-five years his senior, during a hospital stay subsequent to being invalided out of the Western Front.
In the early 1990s I visited the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy in France. This massive twin obelisk limestone monument stands on Vimy Ridge dominating the landscape and records the names of more than 11,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces who died during the war. As I ran my hand along the wall of inscribed names, much as others do with the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, I paused. Without realizing where I had stopped I looked at the name under my hand. Walter John Heyburn was the name of my Uncle Jack’s father. Leaving his pregnant wife in England to follow him, he had emigrated to Canada in the Summer of 1914. With the war breaking out in August he had told his wife to stay put and joined the Expeditionary Forces to come back to Europe. He was killed long before the 1917 assault on Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Forces which dislodged the Germans from a rare piece of high ground in Northern France, but that location records his name for posterity.
The Great War took the lives of millions, armed and civilian. It had massive impact on the geopolitical map of Europe indirectly shaping the lives of future generations. It brought down Russian imperialism opening the way to another form of autocratic rule, that of the rise of communism and the suffering of millions of its subjects. The uneasy peace established at Versailles was a significant factor in the rise of Nazi Germany, the Second War and consequent holocaust.
All its surviving combatants are gone now. The last veteran died in 2011 aged 110. But there are still veterans of the Second War among us.
I’ve known Kal Skeirik for over twenty years. He’s a member of a men’s group at a local church where I have been a regular speaker since the 1990s. Six years ago I sat with him over supper before I spoke as he shared with me one of his memories. As he talked of the early morning sunrise over the river Meuse as he assisted the army chaplain with the baptism of several of his fellow soldiers I realized he was a lot older than I had thought. He was already eighty when I met him.
A few days ago, I was again speaking at this men’s fellowship. I sat with Kal and he told me more of his life story. With great humility and warmth, he spoke of his years working in Washington for the Small Business Administration, of his move to Richmond to be near a daughter and of his last fifteen years in a retirement community. Recently his wife of 68 years celebrated her 99th birthday and together they never imagined they would last a decade and a half in the retirement home. Committed to physical fitness he works out three times a week with a routine of walking, jogging, cycling and boxing for two to three hours. He’s published his war time memoir and is writing a memoir of his years in government service. At the age of 101 he is about to feature in a promotional video for his retirement community as the star of the gym.
Looking at him across the supper table it was hard to appreciate that I was looking at a man already alive when the armistice signatures were signed in a railway carriage in the Compiegne Forest of Eastern France. But he reminds me of the many who never came home from the fronts of both World Wars and subsequent conflicts, who laid down lives for the defense of societies that make us who we are today.
One hundred years on, the names, the images, the stories, serve as reminders that so many live on in our collective memory.