LIEGE, Belgium: World leaders Monday commemorated the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I by warning of lessons to be learned in the face of today’s many crises, including Ukraine.
“Peace has to be a shared goal,” Belgium’s King Philippe told leaders gathered in his country’s eastern city of Liege. “ World War I reminds us to reflect on our responsibility ... to bring people together.”
Leaders from across Europe – from Britain and Ireland to Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Malta – attended the commemoration at the Allied War Memorial of Cointe, a tower complex overlooking the city alongside a weathered grey-stone church painted with white doves for the occasion.
French President Francois Hollande recalled Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium in early August 1914 that turned what had been a localized Balkans war into a global conflagration, raising current day parallels.
“How can we remain neutral today when a people not far from Europe is fighting for their rights?” Hollande said, clearly referring to the Ukraine crisis.
“How can we remain neutral when a civilian airliner is brought down ... when there is conflict in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza?”
The leaders gathered in the industrial town of Liege because dogged fighting there had barred the way to invading German troops in the early days of August 1914.
Liege’s fierce resistance derailed Berlin’s plans for a quick victory, while Germany’s invasion of Belgium formally brought Britain into the war, as interlocking alliances that were meant to preserve the peace plunged Europe into the abyss.
The rest is history: 10 million troops dead, 20 million injured, millions of civilian victims, empires toppled, the world remade.
After Liege, it is the turn of Mons on the French border to remember a do-or-die rearguard action by the first British troops committed to the war as London and Paris scrambled to prevent a German breakthrough in late August.
It was here, too, that the last British soldier was killed Nov. 11, 1918, the very day of the Armistice that ended hostilities after four bloody years.
“It is right to remember the extraordinary sacrifice of a generation and we are all indebted to them because their most enduring legacy is our liberty,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC after attending a memorial service.