Thursday, 23 October 2014

HOW TO REMEMBER THEM? by Leslie Wilson (contains an image which may cause distress)

 I received this cardboard poppy in the unsolicited post in late September, from the British Legion. It invited me to write a message on it, so it could be placed in Flanders Field to 'remember with pride the sacrifices that hundreds of thousands of British and Commonwealth Service men (sic) made..' and 'to remember the thousands who have laid down their lives for our country since then.'

To be fair, the covering letter does also mention servicewomen. You can read for yourself what the envelope says:

But were the dead really 'the bravest of the brave? I don't think so. They were the sacrifices to modern mechanistic warfare, sent out to walk, well-spaced apart, across No Man's Land, while the enemy fire hammered them. For most of them, there was no opportunity for courage, and even those who won VCs spent the rest of their lives trying to forget (something which has been movingly depicted by many of my co-contributors to the Stories of WW1 anthology.) But let a man who experienced it speak here.

What passing bell for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them, no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires. 
Wilfred Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth

My English grandfather didn't fight in the war: his heart condition forbade it, but my uncle by marriage, Edgar, did - he survived Gallipoli, and his wife, my Aunt Molly, told me about his bad nights, sweating, and muttering in his sleep: 'They're coming! They're coming!' I had forgotten this, till I began re-reading my father's autobiographical fragment for a future blog. As I have said before, my German grandfather was a teenage soldier and two of my great-uncles on the German side were killed; my uncle Leo's head, brutally blown off at Verdun, leers at the myths of heroism. 
The British Legion poppy card says 'for all those who fell' - but is that what they truly mean? What will they think if I write Leo Kolodziej on it, 'killed fighting for Germany at Verdun'? Will they include it, or throw it away? Everywhere else, it is stressed that the intention is to honour British and Commonwealth soldiers.Why cannot we remember those who fought on all sides, especially this year?

I was on a British Airways  flight to Hamburg a few years ago, and it was the 11th November, and 11am was just after take-off. So the captain came on the air and said we would observe the 2 minutes silence 'for British servicemen.' This was a flight to Hamburg, for God's sake! What would it have cost him to include all the victims of war? If you visit the exhibition of the incineration of Hamburg at the ruined St Nikolauskirche, you will read that Operation Gomorrah was the deserved result of German aggressive militarism. I would take a slightly different view. I think two wrongs don't make a right, and I contest the ethics and even the effectiveness of the bombing of civilians.What had the small, half-Jewish Wolf Biermann,* for example, done to deserve the terror of running across melting tarmac with his mother, to escape the walls of flame? What had all the children done who didn't make it out? I do not apologise (warnings notwithstanding) for posting the following dreadful image, from Dresden (which was full of refugees at the time of the incendiary raid). This is what air-raids do.

File:Fotothek df ps 0000048 Blick in einen öffentlichen Luftschutzraum mit 243 Leiche.jpg

View of a public air-raid shelter, with 243 corpses,
fourteen months after the bombing of Dresden
photographer Richard Peter (1895-1977)
Deutsche Fotothek, Saxon State Library/
State and University Library, Dresden
Bomber Harris  would have loved to cause a big firestorm in Berlin, but was frustrated by the layout of the city; the roads were too wide for the flames to leap across, and the buildings mainly made of stone and brick. There were small firestorms however, which few people survived.
And that brings me to what I dislike about Remembrance Day (apart from the rhetoric of 'heroes); it seems only to be about those who fought and those who were actively engaged in supporting them. But what about the civilian victims of war, world-wide? Who falls silent to remember them? Well, demonstrators, and Quakers. But officially, civilians don't count. Are the British Legion inviting us to remember great-aunts or grandparents and great-grandparents who died in Zeppelin raids, or family members who died in the air-raids of World War 2, even on the British side? Or the countless victims of landmines? They aren't, because they are a charity that works for British ex-service personnel - which is of course why they don't extend Remembrance Day to other combatants. I do think disabled soldiers get a raw deal, and deserve support. But the fact that Remembrance Day seems to 'belong' to the British Legion is questionable, to my mind, because of the excision of civilians. Do we need a second Remembrance Day for them, or is it possible to extend the day, make it more generous, and open the fund-raising field to those who support ALL victims of war?

I did send the poppy back, with my uncle Leo's name on it. I wonder if they will put it in the field?

*Wolf Biermann was an East German singer-songwriter. His father was murdered (and his body incinerated) at Auschwitz, with the whole of his Jewish family. I need not state the irony.

9 comments:

AndaRae said...

I agree with your thoughts about victims of "strategic bombing". The idea that the Allies were righteous in their warfare in WWII doesn't hold up to scrutiny in the face of the careless destruction of civilians. It is easy to be critical on this side of history, but I think we should. Historiography requires that we analyze history with a critical eye. Not for purposes of revision, but to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated in our future.

However, I don't agree that the men who died in WWI weren't "the bravest of the brave". There is an extraordinary amount of bravery in the men who went to war out of duty or because they needed employment. For years in some cases, these men lived in appalling conditions scarcely imaginable in our modern day. The bravery of those who followed orders (and yes, those orders were flawed and wasted the lives of these men) shouldn't be scoffed at. Even more, the bravery it took my American great-grandfather and my husband's Austrian great-great-grandfather to come home from that war and build a "normal" life afterwards is really something to admire. Thankfully, they did come home, or neither of us would be here!

War should never be glorified. It is a horrible, destructive, and de-humanizing thing. The fact that people survive it at all and can move forward is a triumph of the human spirit. With this year marking 100 years since "The Great War" was fought, it has been interesting to see so many stories from those on both sides who survived. As I put my toddler to bed tonight, I will once again thank God that he will more than likely not grow up to be gassed in a trench "somewhere in France". My heart aches for every mother who has lost a child to something as senseless as war.

I hope they honored your fallen uncle. It is important that ALL the fallen are recognized for the tragedy of lives cut short.

catdownunder said...

When I was in my early teens my father was posted to the position of headmaster at the sort of rural school known in this part of Australia as an "Area School". It was a big school, the biggest of its sort at that time. It was in the centre of a "soldier settlement" - a community where returned servicemen were put on farming "blocks" in order to give them employment - even though most of them had never seen a farm before, let alone worked one. Almost every child there was the son or daughter of a returned serviceman, and sometimes also a servicewoman. There were an immense number of physical and mental issues - and they impacted on their children as well. I can remember our first ANZAC Day service (25th April)and watching grown men openly weeping. Nobody ever recovers from the appalling sorts of experiences they went through. Some of them learned to live with it, others didn't. Were they brave? I don't know. They, like many of my navy relatives, had a job to do and they did it. The real problem it seems to me is that we never manage to learn from the horrors and needless waste of war.

carol drinkwater said...

Leslie, your anger is moving and, in my opinion, well-placed. My husband has German blood and so I, like you, have many German in-laws. Their family stories of their relatives who fought are equally harrowing and I was always astounded by the bravery of my late mother-in-law who walked with her newly-born, first child, a son, to the camp where my late father-in-law, an army cook, had been impounded. She walked for days, weeks, I don't know to where and she is no longer here to ask, so that she could stand outside the compound and hold up her son to his father. I was always in awe of her stamina, her tenacity, her determination to give Robert something to live for, to come home for. The fact that she was German is irrelevant. She was a woman and a mother who prayed for the safe return of her husband who was an army cook, and a very gentle soul. He suffered from depression all his post-war life.

Anne Booth said...

This is a wonderful post. I always buy a poppy, but when I can I also try to wear it with a white poppy too - which might seem a bit confused but reflects my feelings about war. I agree with you about the comments of the pilot on the way to Hamburg, and your point that civilian deaths are just not counted in international warfare. How many are being killed by drones, for example? My grandfather fought in the WW1 & won a medal - my father says it was the DCM. We haven't tracked it down because, after losing 2 brothers and being v brave himself, he returned home and, warning his children never to join the army, pawned his medal for drink and basically drank his way through & lost a business running a post office & a job as a baker. My grandmother had to cope with the after effects of war as she struggled to bring up their 6 children in poverty exacerbated by drink. The organisation who helped them to buy food was the British Legion, which is why I always buy a poppy and feel v grateful to them, but I totally take your points and thank you for a wonderful post.

Anne Booth said...

This is a wonderful post. I always buy a poppy, but when I can I also try to wear it with a white poppy too - which might seem a bit confused but reflects my feelings about war. I agree with you about the comments of the pilot on the way to Hamburg, and your point that civilian deaths are just not counted in international warfare. How many are being killed by drones, for example? My grandfather fought in the WW1 & won a medal - my father says it was the DCM. We haven't tracked it down because, after losing 2 brothers and being v brave himself, he returned home and, warning his children never to join the army, pawned his medal for drink and basically drank his way through & lost a business running a post office & a job as a baker. My grandmother had to cope with the after effects of war as she struggled to bring up their 6 children in poverty exacerbated by drink. The organisation who helped them to buy food was the British Legion, which is why I always buy a poppy and feel v grateful to them, but I totally take your points and thank you for a wonderful post.

carol drinkwater said...

I write my post too early, I think. I meant interned not impounded! Apologies.

Nicola Morgan said...

Well said.

Leslie Wilson said...

Andrarae - thanks for your thoughtful comments, and Carol, thanks for pointing out the courage of civilians. It's so often the women who keep things going, or build up the peace. I can see what you mean, Andrarae, about courage in warfare - and I think what I mind is the glorification of conflict which seems to go with the British Legion rhetoric. I have been in Northern Ireland the past few days, a place where both sides undoubtedly showed courage, and yet the courage that did best was what led them to negotiate at last. I think courage in warfare can be ethically neutral: and can go with hideous actions. It must have taken courage to fly those raids on Dresden and Hamburg - and Coventry. Anne's comment shows how afterwards, courage exhausted, only the wrecks of men come back. Also courageous fighters are driven by fear of what their mates might think, and also by the fear of the firing squad. Were those who cracked cowards? I recognise that this is a complex issue and also that the pacifist angle is far from unproblematic. But I think the current red poppy rhetoric does fuzz the difference between honouring the fallen and glorifying the cause. But I am sure the British Legion does do very good work on the welfare front.

Mary Hoffman said...

Blogger ate my comment! I always wear a white poppy along with a red and I know what I mean by it, even if others think it confused.

Fine post Leslie - we must remember the dead of all wars, no matter in what capacity they died. Those of us lucky enough not to have lived in a war zone in whatever role role only mourn and honour them.