Monday, November 10, 2008

Take a moment from your day tomorrow


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod.
All went lame; all blind;Drunk with fatigue;
deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
- W. Owen, Dulce et Decorum

Near Great Yarmouth in the English County of Norfolk, a few miles along the Beccles Road there is a placid little lake known as Fritton Decoy (pictured above and so called because of a mean-spirited little ruse of olden times that used to involve luring wild ducks into large nets in a rather unsporting manner). It lies a few miles from where I lived in England in 1980-81, and I was given to driving up there just to walk through the placid lakeshore park.

Included at the park-site was an impressive little war museum. One exhibit that struck me was the wreckage of a USAAF Thunderbolt fighter plane. One sunny day back in 1944 this craft and a sister Thunderbolt were taking off to do bomber escort duty over the North Sea. Somebody miscalculated and the two planes collided and plummeted into the lake. It was only years later they were pulled out of its deep, cold waters. Along with the aircraft also came the remains of the two young pilots whose brief lives had ended abruptly that bright springtime morning.

There was poignancy about the whole thing that struck me profoundly and I wrote a long piece about it for Remembrance Day one year. I think it was one of the better things I’ve ever written, primarily because I was so moved by the whole thing. Unfortunately, I’d have to sift through boxes of old stuff to find it, or I’d offer a reprint.

Aside from the tragic loss of two lives, I was left with the thought that I have never been called upon to do such a thing as take up arms in anger for the sake of my country.

This doesn’t make me feel guilty, but it does leave me feeling immensely grateful both that I was spared but that there were others who had, and continue to make those sacrifices.

Tomorrow, November 11th is Remembrance Day in Canada, and Veterans Day in the US, and I cannot help but be struck by the magnitude and horrors of the lives of those who did serve – and continue to serve. Essentially I am an avowed pacifist with Quakerish tendencies, yet maybe there were times when such dreadful jobs needed to be carried out. I have known many veterans of many conflicts, and most are fine and decent men (and women), but at a certain level I know I cannot relate.

Almost exactly two years ago I was sitting in a train travelling rapidly from Lille, France to Brussels. It was a wondrously bright late morning. The flat fields were all that pastoral should be, with cows and sheep and hedgerows, punctuated by small deciduous copses. It was all terribly nice.

And then a thought hit me like a thunderclap to a degree that I almost gasped aloud in my seat on that sleek French train. This place that I was passing through was the ‘Western Front’ of World War One. This serene scene was the muddy and filthy, rat, excreta and corpse-strewn trenches in which literally thousands of young men from many nations lost their lives for the sake of preserving the wealth and privilege of a handful of bankrupt and disgusting little monarchies and aristocracies. This was the neighborhood of Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge, and not too far from the Somme and the Marne and Ypres.

Many years earlier I was idly looking in shop windows on a street in Amsterdam. In one shop there was a display of vintage photographs. A particular photo struck me, as it was a scene out the window of this same shop, looking into the street I was passing along. The only difference was the old picture was dated 1940, and the bustling street of trolleycars, vehicles and bicycles was instead populated by jackbooted Nazi stormtroopers.

Later on that same day we went to the Anne Frank House, No more needs to be said about that visit.

The madness of the world continues, be it in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or the Congo Republic and politics remain as hideous as they always were, but please spare a thought tomorrow for those who, for whatever reasons, patriotism, guilt, need for adventure, were (and are) there. Spare, however, fewer good thoughts for those that sent them. They don’t deserve it, in my esteem.

God of our fathers, known of old--
Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

- R. Kipling, Recessional


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14 Comments:

Blogger Merelyme said...

This is one of my favorite poems on this topic:

Grass


Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work--
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

Carl Sandburg

12:53 PM  
Blogger Ian Lidster said...

A truly excellent poem on the same theme. Thank you.

1:27 PM  
Blogger dragonflyfilly said...

sometimes poetry is the best way to express the sorrow and awfulness of war...i wonder why that is?

thanks for the lovely Post...i particularly liked the photo...

cheers for now,
pj

3:07 PM  
Blogger Sugar said...

Amen.

5:12 PM  
Blogger kimber the wolfgrrrl said...

Resquiat in pacem, et gratias ago tibi.

7:25 PM  
Blogger French Fancy said...

It worries me that in generations to come the tragedy of the Great (yeh, great!) War will be forgotten amongst all the more fashionably ghastly wars.

When I read about life in the trenches it is so very very sad and you just feel so helpless and so angry about the ineptitude of the people at the top.

A solemn day which is a bank holiday where I live in France and I really don't understand why it isn't the same in the UK.

11:06 PM  
Blogger meggie said...

A lovely post Ian.

11:53 PM  
Blogger Deb S. said...

May we never forget. What a lovely tribute, Ian. (((HUGS)))

4:58 AM  
Blogger Daisy said...

This was really poignant Ian, a good mix of the general and your own personal remembrance too. I do worry that the generation that really remembers the horrors of the world wars is on its way out; thankfully people like you are still remembering and encouraging others to as well.

6:57 AM  
Blogger Dumdad said...

Poignant post. And quoting Kipling is doubly apposite as his only, and very much loved, son Jack died in the Great War; Kipling, in fact, had encouraged his son to join up and was devastated to lose him.

Kipling wrote bitterly:

If any question why we died

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Jazz said...

The people remember but the governments never do...

9:36 AM  
Blogger heartinsanfrancisco said...

I am a pacifist who makes exceptions. World War II was an exception, in my view, although most wars are unjust.

Places seem to retain energy, which you responded to on your train ride through the Western Front.

Long ago, while visiting Charleston, SC, I stood in front of a waterfront building where slaves were auctioned off after being removed from the ships that brought them from Africa. I felt a paralyzing cold and such excruciating pain that I was unable to enter the building. So I believe that great suffering leaves its imprint upon a place forever.

I will be thinking of your two young pilots of the lake all day.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Big Brother said...

The ones that paid the ultimate sacrifice were all so young... why is it the older generation that declares war and the young that must pay the price? Lest we forget!

10:43 AM  
Blogger Wendy C. said...

When I think of veterans, my mind goes back to WWII. The book Night by Elie Wiesel is, in my opinion, one of the most moving accounts of the suffering caused by war. There is a story posted today on CNN about a US veteran named Anthony Acevedo who was held in a Nazi concentration camp...talk about humbling. I am deeply touched by the stories of sacrifices made by ordinary people.

10:58 AM  

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