Tag Archives: War

15 November: Remembering a century on

 

Remembrance Sunday, 2018, 100 years since the Armistice brought an end to the fighting in the Great War. There was no question as to how I should mark the day, since my niece Jo was down in Folkestone to help create on the sand a portrait of Wilfred Owen, the soldier poet killed a few days before the war ended.

The big portrait was completed by the team in the early morning despite the rain that washed away part of the work; it was replaced in time for the public viewings.

Further along the beach people were invited to sketch silhouettes of dead soldiers in rows upon the sand. Hundreds did so; I imagine with some degree of solemnity. These images, and the portrait of Owen, were washed away by the tide.

But it’s never quite ‘Goodbye to all that’, is it?

As my mother, our poet SPB put it, ‘Bravo Danny Boyle for such a powerful forward looking impact involving so many who would not have taken part in services and parades.’ The crowds were great, but as I heard someone say to an acquaintance: ‘Everyone is taking it in turns up there (on the balcony where the best views were). And so it was. All seemed muted but glad to be there, part of the crowd, part of the people.

MMB

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14 November – A Peace Dividend

bendy.bus.2

I recently visited Northern Ireland for the first time in many years. Belfast looked cleaner and more prosperous, although the murals and the flags on lampposts spoke of tensions that have not disappeared.

The day after my meeting I took a bus to Dublin. A bus from the Republic, running a cross-border service. No halt as we passed from one jurisdiction to the other; if I’d been looking the other way I’d have missed the border altogether.

Most passengers got down at Dublin airport, as it serves more destinations than Belfast; when we reached central Dublin the bus parked at the Busaras (bus station) like those from Sligo or Cork or Galway. And we arrived on time.

That was an example of a poetic timetable!

But we need planners as well as poets, hard heads as well as soft hearts. Such people go unsung, even unfairly criticised for lack of vision, but they have contributed to the changes in Ireland, the Balkans, the Horn of Africa …

God send us more of them!

MMB

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November 13. Remembrance and beyond

southsea

During the Second World War in Britain, while men were fighting and the war effort seemed to be paramount in people’s minds, in the background other politicians and civil servants were drawing up plans for important areas such as housing, health and education. This time it would be a ‘land fit for heroes’. In the event, prefabricated houses and schools were erected with a speed and in numbers never again seen and the National Health Service came into being.

A better housed, better educated and generally healthier population was the result. But planning can only go so far, as the Times Literary Supplement columnist Charles Morgan pointed out.

In all the plans that are made for the life we are to lead, how seldom is there evidence of any wish that life shall be enjoyed: that it shall be safe – yes; that it shall be instructed, equalised, rubbed smooth, supplied with dustless corners and chromium-plated taps; but that there shall be grace or charm or quiet or gaiety or sweetness or light in it, there is among the sterner planners neither hope nor desire. Utility and sameness are their guiding stars … Their ideal is to make of the art of life what a timetable is to a poem.1

He wrote, of course, from a position of privilege, and exaggerates in his last two sentences to make a polemical point. Certainly I have visited prefabs that have lasted nearly three times their planned lifespan, are light and airy, and well loved by those who have made their homes therein. And G.K. Chesterton considered timetables poetic; especially when they work! And what joy, post-war, when such things could be more or less relied on again!

MMB

Portsmouth, largely rebuilt after World War II

1Charles Morgan, Reflections in a Mirror, London, MacMillan, 1944, p.93.

 

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November 12. Truth telling XIII: the first casualty in war.

why not join the army.jpg

It seems to have been the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus who first said that truth is the first casualty in war.

This poster sums that up. It was intended to attract young Irishmen to join the colours during the Great War of 1914-18. I return to the question we asked on November 6 two years ago: What sacrifices have been offered in modern industrial war and to what deities?

Truth, in this case, was sacrificed to the idols of Nationalism and Xenophobia. And  all too many young men were sacrificed.

Let nation speak peace unto nation.

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11 November: Poppies for remembering

poppy.bridge

We took a walk in South Manchester, going  to the Fletcher Moss Park along this footpath. Here it crosses over the tram lines; not only has the bridge been decorated with poppies, but where the overgrown verges of the path have been cleared, three local primary schools have sown poppy seeds, ready to come up in the next few weeks. (I was writing this in March, but the poppies did indeed flower during the summer.)

There were poems by some of the children attached to the fence, just out of sight.

On this centenary Remembrance Day, what should we teach them about events that no-one alive remembers? In an increasingly aggressive world, do we say ‘Si Vis Pacem. Pare Bellum’ – ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’? That makes a certain sense, but it is not the way we expect them to behave in the playground.

A sense of injustice can lead to war; but there is also greed. And there is romanticising of self-sacrifice in battle which all too easily prevents the asking of difficult questions. (How dare you suggest my father/brother/son died for nothing.)

There were reasons why our fathers and grandfathers did not speak of their wartime experiences: because romantic it was not. As well as pain, loneliness and fear, a man had to be ready to kill fellow human beings, individually or en masse. Many hated this duty but there was also bloodlust; something we have witnessed, and continue to witness, in today’s conflicts.

Perhaps it’s good to introduce the children to the idea of self-sacrifice, while diverting them from the glorification of war and from the aggressive war games we used to play – in times when the nation had not got the Second World War out of its system. That of course is too easily said, when immersive shoot-up games are readily available on computers and on line. Do these dissipate aggression or reinforce it?

MMB

 

 

 

 

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November 10: Remembering

poppy.OTTfigure

I came across this little Staffordshire souvenir figure under a church war memorial last November. A hundred years on, it’s difficult to understand who would design such an ornament, or who would have bought it. As boys I remember us getting more run-of-the-mill designs for my mother’s collection, but we once gave her a Great War tank model, not thinking of the loss of life and all the human suffering it represented.

But what does this figure represent, other than a present from Bishop’s Stortford? Is the soldier a killer or a victim? Brave or resigned, or hoping for a ‘Blighty’ wound to get himself sent home for a month or two? Did it remind its first owner of a loved one lost? And how did it feel to see it if you were a returned front-line soldier, after the War? Pure white was not very often seen amid Flanders mud.

Caught in that moment when he goes Over The Top to kill or be killed: how do we bring this to God? This is not man-for-man fighting – the machine gun that may get him will be many yards away, and unless it comes to bayonets he won’t see the one he kills.

Perhaps it is fitting to put him down, as the parishioners did, in front of the Cross on the War Memorial; without a word, with the poppies around him.

What can we say? With our current weaponry we have no right to feel morally superior. Piloting deadly drones from hundreds of miles away or threatening to press the red button; or indeed having others do so in our name: lives on ‘our side’ are not at risk as those going over the top were.

Father forgive us for we do not want to know what we do.

 

 

 

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22 September: Saint Maurice, a book review.

Looking back, I realise that my teacher Miss ‘Killer’ was an ignorant woman. She ridiculed children who had not been baptised with what she considered to be appropriate saints’ names. ‘There’s never been a Saint June!’ she once spat, instead of saying, ‘You could stick with Saint Jane or Saint Joan.’ As for ‘Royston’! ‘What kind of a name is that?’ Life was miserable if you were on the wrong side of her, as a good 75% of us regularly were. I’m glad she did not pick up on the idea that Saint Maurice did not exist; it would have been another stick to beat me with. And I mean beat.

The theory was that since there were no contemporary accounts of Maurice and his companions, they were more likely a group of saints invented to make sense of a mass grave found in Switzerland in 383 AD, said to have been Christian legionaries executed for refusing an immoral order.

Donald O’Reilly in Lost Legion Rediscovered  settles the Question to his and my satisfaction: there was a Christian Theban legion – from the Egyptian Thebes, not the Greek one – and in the late 3rd Century civil war its members were killed in great numbers for disobeying an immoral order, and this happened not only in Switzerland’s town that bears his name but across North West Europe.

O’Reilly’s detective work is well worth reading, giving insight into Roman civil and military life of the time, and into Christian attitudes to military service. Yes, St Maurice did exist, an African in Europe, which is why his town is now the focus for the annual African pilgrimage to the saints of Africa every June.

Here is part of a speech attributed to Maurice by a later writer (p121 of O’Reilly’s book).

Our right hands know how to fight against wicked men and enemies; they do not know how to cut into pieces innocent men and fellow citizens. We remember we took up arms on behalf of citizens rather than against citizens. We have always fought on behalf of justice, on behalf of the safety of the innocent; up to the present time this has been the reward of our dangers. We have fought on behalf of the faith; and how are we to keep our faith towards you – the words are addressed to the emperor – if we do not show forth faith to God?

 

Donald O’Reilly, Lost Legion Rediscovered, Barnsley, Pen and Sword, 2011.

MMB

 

 

 

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13 September: ‘We thought we were set.’ Shared table XXV.

dunes

The BBC Website includes a section on The People’s War, memories of the conflict from all over the world. It is worth visiting to learn how bad and how good people can be in times of stress, conflict and danger.

George Nolan Johnston was in the British army in the Middle East, sent on a long and apparently pointless journey culminating in a crowded train with no opportunity to get food or drink. Did the officer who organised it not know the men could not get food, or did he just not care?

Here is an extract from Mr Nolan Johnston’s story, but do read the rest of it.

We arrived at a way-side station in the sand. A fleet of trucks waited for us, we were transported some miles west into the sun, and dumped on the side of a desert road. Our patch was beside an east-west tarmacadam road bordered to the North and South with sand. The patch was equipped with open ablutions and latrines. We had neither food nor tents.

Shortly after we arrived a dispatch rider arrived on a motorbike. He bore a message from the officer in charge of the next camp, which was a mile up the road. If we cared to walk up, he would supply us with tea and sandwiches, he apparently had been similarly dumped a week prior to us. We were really starving so we queued up with our tummies rumbling and mugs at the ready. The last few yards were torture and when we got a full mug of sweet tea and a large thick corned beef sandwich, we thought we were set. Never before or since have I enjoyed anything better. We were so very much grateful to the unknown officer.

Compassion, imagination and sharing.

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July 30. 100 years ago today: Prayer of a Soldier in France.

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Joyce (Alfred Joyce) Kilmer was an American Catholic Poet who died at the front this day 100 years ago. He is buried at the Oise-Aisne cemetery shown above. In this poem he comes to terms with the everyday suffering of the soldier by laying it alongside the passion of Jesus. Our second post today is a response to KIlmer’s verses from a living American poet, our friend Christina Chase.

I have found it difficult to reconcile the link people have made between Christ’s sacrifice and the soldier at war, prepared to be killed but also prepared to kill, for his country. What right does the country have to demand either sacrifice?

But here is one man. One man’s pain and suffering, offered, not to his country, but to the one true Man who was the one true God. A lesson in that for each of us.

Prayer of a Soldier in France

My shoulders ache beneath my pack 

(Lie easier, Cross, upon His back). 

I march with feet that burn and smart 

(Tread, Holy Feet, upon my heart). 

Men shout at me who may not speak 

(They scourged Thy back and smote Thy cheek). 

I may not lift a hand to clear 

My eyes of salty drops that sear. 

(Then shall my fickle soul forget 

Thy agony of Bloody Sweat?) 

My rifle hand is stiff and numb 

(From Thy pierced palm red rivers come). 

Lord, Thou didst suffer more for me 

Than all the hosts of land and sea. 

So let me render back again 

This millionth of Thy gift. Amen. 

Joycekilmersignature

Oise-Aisne Cemetery,  official site.
Signature: Open Access, via Wikipedia  

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26 July: Mio Nido.

Alfred Noble, inventor of dynamite, hoped his high explosives would make an end of war sooner than international peace congresses. Mutually Assured Destruction as a deterrent has turned out to be MAD indeed. Nobel himself died, a lonely man, in his Italian Villa, ‘Mio Nido’, My Nest. But he left his prizes.

In 1955 the United Nations High Commission for Refugees was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for what is a practical work of peace. Here are a few excerpts from the acceptance speech of the High Commissioner, Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart.

“Der Mensch braucht ein Plätzchen

Und wär’s noch so klein

Von dem er kann sagen

Sieh’ hier dast ist mein

Hier lebe ich hier liebe ich

Hier ruhe ich aus

Hier ist meine Heimat

Hier bin ich zu Haus”.

(A man needs a little place, small as it may be, of which he can say:This is mine. Here I live, here I love, here I find my rest. This is my fatherland, this is my home!”)

The essence of the refugee problem is very, very simple. It is: to find ‘ein Plätzchen,’ to find a ‘Mio Nido’ for people who for reasons of persecution have been obliged to leave their native country and who have therefore become ‘uprooted’ and homeless.”

The refugee problem has nothing to do with charity. It is not the problem of people to be pitied but far more the problem of people to be admired. It is the problem of people who somewhere, somehow, sometime had the courage to give up the feeling of belonging, which they possessed, rather than abandon the human freedom which they valued more highly … And the refugee can solve his problem only by striking new roots.

Many years ago I participated in a discussion on the problem of international education. After many experts had presented their complicated theories, an old headmaster of a certain school got up and quietly said: “There is only one system of education, through love and one’s own example.” He was right. What is true for education is true also for the refugee problem of today. With love and our own example – example in the sense of sacrifice – it can be solved. And if in the cynical times in which we live someone might be inclined to laugh at “love” and “examples” as factors in politics, he would do well to be reminded of Nansen’s hardhitting, direct and courageous words, based on a life full of sacrifice and devotion: “Love of man is practical policy”.

Find the full text here. 

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