Friday, April 25, 2008

Lest We Forget

I meant to write this post earlier, put Fridays date on it and be able to rest assured in the knowledge that for once, I would not be behind the eight-ball.

But of course, I have a memory like a sieve, I’ve been busy this week, and generally, if I can do something today, I generally put it off until tomorrow. So I’m writing this on Thursday, with much less time to edit it if need be than I thought I would.

So, Anzac day. I confess that I tend to think less of those who specifically lost their lives at Anzac Cove on the 25th April, and more of all those who lost their lives, regardless of where they fell. Part of this is personal experience. I’ve been to the shrine on Anzac day for the dawn service, and was touched by it.

But something has touched me more. Given me more of a sense of scale. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I forget which, I spent a month travelling around France. Part or that time we spent in Paris, and the rest we spent travelling around on a kind of “History Holiday”

We visited the American war cemetery. We visited the British War Cemetery, and found the grave of my maternal grandfathers brother, who died at Normandy, I believe. We visited the German war cemetery, the beaches at Normandy, stood in the bunkers along the shore. Ran up and down large craters by the sand and realised only later that they weren’t natural dunes. Ran my fingers along the pock marks left by bullets in concrete walls and stood in fields where cows should be grazing, that instead are adorned by rows upon rows of headstones.

I’ve craned my neck to see the top name on monuments to those who lost their lives. I’ve been in the mausoleums. I’ve almost wept at the memory of the German War cemetery, which was the saddest of all.

I know Germany were the losers in World War one and two. I know history is written by the victors. I know that they were lead by a crazy man with a weird moustache. I know that the SS and the German war machine committed terrible atrocities, and some people still carry the scars and always will. But the men who went over the top and got a bullet for their trouble were following orders just like Digger Joe or Tommy Smith. They paid the ultimate price for that, as our men did. I think the least we could do is afford them some peace and a respite from politics in death.

And so it was hard to see the cemetery. It was basically just a round wall, with plaques. There was no field with headstones for each man, as with the American and British war cemeteries. No such dignity. From what we learned there, the German War Cemetery was run solely on donations. There was no funding from the German government, who did not want to be seen to be mourning men the world condemns, no funding from the French government and no hope of additional space.

I hope things have changed since then. I sincerely do. But back to my point (See what happens when you rush and can’t edit?)

I can’t put into words – although I’ll try – the scale of what you see in France. I can’t find the right phrase for the thousands upon thousands of headstones. You stand there and you know these were fathers, brother and sons – all the usual things you think when you see a grave. But this is on such a massive, bewildering scale. As far as the eye can see in every direction are headstones. Under each of those headstones lies someone loved. Someone missed. Someone grieved for. Men who did no more than be of certain ages and live in a certain time, condemned to die because politicians could not agree. It’s unimaginable.

I think everyone should visit the war cemeteries and the landing beaches in Normandy once in their lives. To see what is truly meant by the “ultimate sacrifice”. Generations of men cut to ribbons by machine gun fire or bayonet charge because of the actions of a few. We owe it to their memories and the sacrifice they made to prevent such suffering again if we can. To make sure we truly live up to the “Lest we Forget” promise. I can think of no better legacy than to make sure there doesn’t need to be another “War to end all Wars”

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