Saturday, April 25, 2009

Lest we Forget

Recycled from last year, because I don't know how to say it better (Also, the nail-biting win by the dons seems to have scrambled by brain. More on that tomorrow):

So, Anzac day. I confess that I tend to think less exclusively 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”

Just to be clear, I think politics is best left out of these days. This is one of few days where you should leave your ideology at the door and bow your head. These men didn't go to their death so we could use their demise in a political-point scoring game.


zoot said...

Fine sentiments Keri, I couldn't agree more.
My great uncle was killed in the mud of Passchendaele and his brother, my grandfather, died (eventually) from wounds sustained on the Western Front. More and more the central theme of my reflections on Anzac Day is, "What a waste".

Keri said...

It's the scale of it that always gets me. I can't describe it.

accidentalaussie said...

Seeing commemoration such as ANZAC day as someone who was born and grew up in Italy is an interesting experience.

In WWI Australia and Italy were on the same side, although In think most Australian would not know this. I think also the reason why many Australians do not know the role of Italy was because the fighting was on the Southern Front, not the Western one where the Australian fought. While Italy was nominally on the 'winning' side it was a disaster. A total of 1,240,000 died, many in trench warfare, something that Australians would have known well. The difference would be that instead of French mud it was the sub-zero temperatures of the Alps. My grandfather volunteered to be an 'Alpino' the Alpine Corp of the Italian Army. My mother would tell me of him waking up screaming in the middle of the night.

Of course most Australians would know that Italians were on the other side in WW2, also because unlike WW1 there was direct conflict with Australians in North Africa.

As Keri has stated the fallen for this war more or less are not remembered. Italy too has a holiday on the 25th of April, but it is called 'Liberation Day'. It was the day when the Allied Forces drove the Fascist-Nazi armies from Italy. Of course by that stage Italy was a spent force when it came to the war. Italy was embroiled in what was in effect a civil war between the Fascists and the Communists/Socialists which were termed 'Patisans'. As all civil wars it was the nastiest possible. Harboring a partisan meant being instantly shot and many innocent families lost their lives this way. But for instance those 151,000 Italians that lost their lives by starvation and frost in the USSR because sent by the Fascist government underprepared and underesourced are mostly forgotten.


Keri said...

Thanks, Guido. I'm glad you could eventually get a comment through.

That's what made me saddest of the war cemeteries - that those who may not have fought on the same side as you were forgotten, or neglected, or downright defiled.

At the end of the day, the Italians in WWII or the Germans in either war were just doing what the Aussies were doing - fighting for their homeland. Whether the leaders of that homeland were right in sending them to war isn't relevant to their sacrifice.

finster said...

Thank you Guido. I had forgotten Italy was an ally in WW1 and I was unaware of the scale of their casualties (although I probably should have guessed).