Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod.
All went lame; all blind;Drunk with fatigue;
deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
– W. Owen, Dulce et Decorum
Near Great Yarmouth in the English County of Norfolk, a few miles along the Beccles Road there is a placid little lake known as Fritton Decoy, so called because of a mean-spirited little ruse of olden times that used to involve luring wild ducks into large nets in a rather unsporting manner. It lies a few miles from where I lived in England in 1980-81, and I was given to driving up there just to walk through the placid lakeshore park.
Included at the park-site was an impressive little war museum. One exhibit that struck me was the wreckage of a USAAF Thunderbolt fighter plane. One sunny day back in 1944 this craft and a sister Thunderbolt were taking off to do bomber escort duty over the North Sea. Somebody miscalculated and the two planes collided and plummeted into the lake. It was only years later they were pulled out of its deep, cold waters. Along with the aircraft also came the remains of the two young pilots whose brief lives had ended abruptly that bright springtime morning.
There was poignancy about the whole thing that struck me profoundly and I wrote a long piece about it for Remembrance Day one year. I think it was one of the better things I’ve ever written, primarily because I was so moved by the whole thing. Unfortunately, I’d have to sift through boxes of old stuff to find it, or I’d offer a reprint.
Aside from the tragic loss of two lives, I was left with the thought that I have never been called upon to do such a thing as take up arms in anger for the sake of my country.
This doesn’t make me feel guilty, but it does leave me feeling immensely grateful both that I was spared but that there were others who had, and continue to make those sacrifices.
Today, November 11th is Remembrance Day in Canada, and Veterans Day in the US, and I cannot help but be struck by the magnitude and horrors of the lives of those who did serve – and continue to serve. Essentially I am an avowed pacifist yet maybe there were times when such dreadful jobs needed to be carried out. I have known many veterans of many conflicts, and most are fine and decent men (and women), but at a certain level I know I cannot relate.
Then, in 2006 at almost exactly this time of year I was sitting comfortably in on of those remarkable high-speed French trains travelling rapidly from Lille, France to Brussels. It was a wondrously bright late morning. The flat fields were all that pastoral should be, with cows and sheep and hedgerows, punctuated by small deciduous copses. It was all terribly nice.
And then a thought hit me like a thunderclap to a degree that I almost gasped aloud in my seat on that train. This place that I was passing through was the ‘Western Front’ of World War One. This serene scene was the muddy and filthy, rat, excreta and corpse-strewn trenches in which literally thousands of young men from many nations lost their lives for the sake of preserving the wealth and privilege of a handful of bankrupt and disgusting little monarchies and aristocracies. This was the neighborhood of Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge, and not too far from the Somme and the Marne and Ypres.
Many years earlier I was idly looking in shop windows on a street in Amsterdam. In one shop there was a display of vintage photographs. A particular photo struck me, as it was a scene out the window of this same shop, looking into the street I was passing along. The only difference was the old picture was dated 1940, and the bustling street of trolleycars, vehicles and bicycles was instead populated by jackbooted Nazi stormtroopers.
Later on that same day we went to the Anne Frank House, No more needs to be said about that visit.
The madness of the world continues and politics remain as hideous as they always were, but please spare a thought today for those who, for whatever reasons, patriotism and love of country, or maybe even guilt or need for adventure, were (and are) in combat zones. Much of your cherished freedom rests on what they gave, including in too many cases, their lives.
God of our fathers, known of old–
Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine–
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!
– R. Kipling, Recessional