The past few weeks, the carnage and slaughter and senselessness of the World Wars have been a common theme for our program days. It began with our stay in Dresden, a cultural mecca of pre-war Germany that was levelled ruthlessly during WWII without precedent, literally disintegrating thousands of civilians in the middle of the night as they huddled in their bomb shelters; it is now a city alive with a sense of restoration and commemoration of the past. Next was Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp that became the model and training centre for the running of all other camps during Hitler’s dictatorship, where thousands of lives were worked away, and tonnes of innocent blood soaked into the ground that is now a garden. This past week, we’ve seen the front lines of WWI–Vimy Ridge and Hill 60, and Ypres–where men threw themselves headlong into the work of killing and dying; where men suffered and slogged witlessly in the trenches and tunnels of bloody, muddy, otherwise insignificant kilometres.
A few days ago, we visited a museum focusing specifically on the battles around Ypres in Belgium, called the ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’ in recognition of John McCray’s famous poem. Here I learned that Belgium had been promised the ability to remain neutral but found itself overrun with the armies of its neighbours, forced to fight or fall, because of its bad luck to be in between the two great enemies, France and Germany. Poor, unfortunate Belgium! The entirety of Ypres was reduced to rubble after three battles meant to defend it, and is now surrounded by over a hundred cemetaries, many of the gravestones marking the graves of soldiers “known only to God.”
I think the hardest thing about all of these experiences is having to acknowledge and coming face to face with the conviction that Canada, the “good’ side, also slaughtered and rejoiced over fields of battle strewn with snuffed out lives and spread the myth of the glory of war. Admitting that there was no “good” side in these horrific events, realizing that all that really mattered were the lives that ended and the lives that only half continued and the lives that were left behind, has definitely been a challenge for such a determined believer in the romanticism and heroism in everyday life as I am. Why is it so easy to glorify the victory of the Canadians at Vimy Ridge–the troops who didn’t even have their own country yet, idealized with wonderful comraderie and determination–after all, we did what the powerful French and British couldn’t! Why is it so unpleasant to see the shell ravaged territory, to hear of the Allies, the “good guys”, creating killing fields, deliberately trapping the young, hapless “enemy” into several crossfires at once? Why is it so easy to make a monster of another people, and not realize that this tactic is one of the most dangerous enabler of that sequel to the Great War that was to end all wars??
The In Flanders Fields Museum brought this home in a new and poignant way with its indiscriminate display of both sides, any nationality involved in the war, from any “side”. Here’s a few of the quotes they had:
“I caught sight of a German the day before yesterday. He was building fortifications 50 metres away from me. I had to kill him, didn’t I? I took a rifle, quite calmly I took aim, and he fell. And yet I can see the features of that man with perfect clarity. I think it’s very much like a murder. Horrible!” -Maurice Laurentin
“They came out of their trenches and walked across unarmed, with boxes of cigars and seasonable remarks. What were our men to do? Shoot? You could not shoot unarmed men.” -Count Gleichen, Christmas 1914
“The night of Christmas Eve, 24.12.14, it was my privilege to play Father Christmas and to carry a Christmas tree to my company commander in the trenches at the very front. There was a new moon, and the bright starlit sky was lit even more brightly by the tracer bullets from the two front lines. For me, they were beautiful Christmas illuminations. Nothing was heard, except machine gun fire from time to time, or a short burst of shots. Sometimes an infrantryman would shoot to the left or to the right of me, but I knew that the enemy would not use me as a target, despite the light which was as strong as day, because I was Father Christmas, and I was carrying the decorated tree.” -Carl Muhlegg
“All sorts of stories have been circulated regarding the meeting of the enemy and British troops between the trenches. Luckily the troops holding our immediate line of trenches just waited until the Germans got out of the trenches, then they let them have it, rapid fire; it stopped any of this ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ sort of nonsense.” -Bryden McKinnell
I for one see no accusable monster here. I’m ashamed to have ever believed in “the enemy”.