YPRES, Belgium — Leaders and dignitaries from former World War I enemies united Tuesday to mark the centenary of the first big battle on the infamous Flanders Fields which helped set the stage for four years of bloodletting by hundreds of thousands on the Western Front.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke Tuesday of the "immeasurable sacrifice" the war caused and said all sides "cannot but be grateful for how much has changed since."
World War I claimed an estimated 14 million lives, including 5 million civilians and 9 million soldiers. At least 7 million troops were left permanently disabled.
"The standards of civilization were no longer valid," said Merkel. "Nationalism clouded the senses."
The combatants dug in along a line of fortified trenches that extended from the North Sea to Switzerland — a front line that remained essentially unchanged throughout the war.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the old hatred and grudges had been left behind, as cemeteries with German and French soldiers sometimes lie side by side to decry the horrors of war.
"The soldiers of this war have long shed their uniforms. These victims deserve all the same respect," Le Drian said at the ceremony on the Belgian coast.
"It is why the remembrance is there to bring the belligerents of 1914 together in a common goal — a united Europe," he said.
After the seaside ceremony, the leaders went to nearby Ypres, once a prosperous medieval town which was flattened by relentless fighting during 1914-1918, to hear a special rendition of the Last Post.
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