SAINT-SYMPHORIEN, Belgium — Separated by only a small patch of yellow daisies at the Saint-Symphorien military cemetery lie two former enemies: British Captain Kenneth James Roy and German Gefreiter Reinhold Dietrich. Also between the two are some 9 million dead soldiers over four years.
Roy died in the first month of World War I, trying to stop the early German onslaught through Belgium. Dietrich died two weeks before the war ended with a German defeat.
On Monday, from Glasgow, Scotland to Liege and the small Saint-Symphorien in southern Belgium, leaders of the former enemies Belgium, France, Britain and Germany stood together in a spirit of reconciliation to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of conflict that became known as The Great War.
On Aug. 4, 1914 Germany invaded neutral Belgium as part of a planned attack on France, forcing Britain to declare war by nightfall and unleash the biggest conflagration the world had known.
“It opened Pandora’s Box,” said German President Joachim Gauck, who acknowledged that it “is anything but self-evident to stand and talk to you on this day” and be warmly welcomed by the nation Germany overran.
Gauck openly spoke of “the great injustice” of invading Belgium and the wanton destruction of the university library in Leuven and other civilian brutalities during the first weeks of the war.
British Prime Minister David Cameron hailed the spirit to heal such deep wounds and such deep-rooted enmity.
“We should never fail to cherish the peace between these nations and never underestimate the patient work it has taken to build that peace,” he said at dusk, a few hours before the moment Britain declared war on Germany a century ago.
During the morning ceremonies at the allied memorial in Liege many leaders, including French President Francois Hollande, insisted that European nations have to act more forceful in conflicts from Ukraine to Iraq and Gaza.
“We cannot remain neutral,” Hollande said. “We have an obligation to react and it is Europe which must take on these responsibilities.”
He called on the same nations who were enemies then to stand together now. Over four years which ended with the Nov. 11, 1918 armistice, the German and Austro-Hungarian empires faced Britain, France, Russia and, later, the United States.
At the intimate Saint-Symphorien cemetery in southern Belgium a balmy sun kissed the daisies standing in between Roy and Dietrich.
Even in defeat, the allied effort that claimed Roy’s life on Aug. 23, 1914, helped slow the German advance toward France that eventually bogged down as it was closing in on Paris.
Gauck said the German plan that was supposed to secure early victory was “hapless” and deplored German actions against civilians and cities its forces passed through during the early weeks of the war.
By the end of autumn 1914, both sides dug in, and from the early battles, the war quickly changed into trench warfare on the Western Front, with hundreds of thousands of casualties in a barren landscape where poison gas often wafted through the air.
The war wasn’t expected to last long. The battlefront scars would slowly and agonizingly rip across Europe, ravage whole communities and millions of families. It produced a moral wasteland in Germany that would become fertile ground for the rise of Nazism. Four empires would disappear.
When Dietrich died, on Oct. 28, 1918, it was the Germans’ time to withdraw in defeat.
WWI is now often depicted as senseless slaughter without a big moral cause that claimed an estimated 14 million lives, including 5 million civilians, sailors and airmen from 28 countries.
British Prime Minister David Cameron sought to debunk that notion.
“That is wrong. These men signed up to prevent the domination of a continent, to preserve the principles of freedom and sovereignty that we cherish today,” he said, only dozens of footsteps away from the headstones of Roy and Dietrich and 241 other Commonwealth and 288 German casualties.