Breaking Faith on the Western Front

Breaking Faith on the Western Front

I’ve just come back from taking over 40 fourteen year olds to Northern France to see the battlefields of the Western Front. Obviously, this is a significant year, marking the 100th anniversary since the end of the war. As a maths teacher, I must admit, my knowledge of the history of the First World War was very sketchy and mostly based on Blackadder Goes Forth. “Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.”

All Trees Destroyed

Died for France

We visited British, French, Canadian, New Zealand, Australian, German, South African, and American graves and memorials. On both sides there are graves bearing the Star of David and in Verdun many thousand graves of Muslim soldiers from North Africa, who “died for France”.

We walked round cemeteries in the middle of lush farmland surrounded by green woods. This beautiful landscape with no trees … it’s hard to comprehend. When the Germans launched their bombardment of Verdun, two million shells were launched in the first two days. Over the next 6 months we see over 23 millions shells launched.

The only tree to survive the war

(I hope you noticed my use of the historical present tense – clearly favoured by historians – and just a little grating after a while!) No tree stood a chance – the beautiful French countryside reduced to a lunar landscape. At Delville Wood (the South African memorial) there is a famous hornbeam tree – the only tree to have survived the fighting of 1916!

Goodbye my loved ones, DON’T CRY!

Many soldiers wrote farewell letters home. How difficult that must be. Letters were written in other wars – but in this one the soldiers knew. Trying to take enemy machine guns on elevated positions by shear weight of numbers, is a strategy that sounds much better in a protected war cabinet, than on the front line. At the crater at La Boisselle we read the farewell letter of Pte John Scollen, of the 27th Northumberland Fusiliers. He wrote it on the 27th June 1916. There’s a certainty about it. He died on the 1st July.

Known Unto God

The numbers are hard to comprehend. Seeing helps. At Thiepval there is a British memorial with 73,367 names of British and Commonwealth soldiers who died “but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death”. Two seconds a name; it takes over 40 hours for them all. “Their Name Liveth for Evermore” – an occasional 2 seconds at a time. Yet they only represent a thirteenth of the British and Commonwealth fatalities.

Individual gravestones are fascinating. At Tynecot, the largest British cemetery, there are nearly 12000 gravestone. Over 8000 unnamed and “known unto God”. The human body versus machine gun fire.

The most sobering are those that reflect the empty loss of those left behind. “To have and to hold, to love and then to part. There’s no greater pain for a parents heart”. (Mametz Wood). There are some with raw honesty. “Sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war”. (Tynecot)

Platitudes of War

Who Dies Fighting Has Increase

Many try to bring meaning to the meaningless, but create platitudes of war. “The Glorious Dead” is often repeated. “To the Glory of God …”, but it is hard to see any glory. “Who dies fighting hath increase”, what does that even mean? Sacrifice – “Greater love hath no man than this …”

As I walked around there was a sense of guilt. I should be grateful for their sacrifice. “For your tomorrow, we gave our today…”, but I couldn’t join the dots. War is not about freedom, it is about legacy. It is about power. Soldiers always fighting another man’s war … but the legacy of the Prussian War was the First World War. The legacy of the First World War was the Second World War. The legacy of the Second World War was the war in former Yugoslavia. Does it end?

It felt like sacrilege to think this way. Sacrifice suggests choice – but the individuals were powerless to affect the ‘sacrifice’ they were being ordered to make. Looking back maybe sacrifice is the right word – but not for me – not for my freedom. That would have, could have come from different means. It was sacrifice on the alters of warmongers. Such waste of life that couldn’t be more opposite to “the Glory of God.”  

I broke faith:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard among the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch. Be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields”

By John McCrae, May 1915

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