Lessons on Armistice Day

2008-11-11 00:00

Ninety years ago today, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, World War 1 ended on the Western Front. Near Mons, a German machine gunner fired off a final belt of ammunition, took off his helmet, bowed towards the Allied lines, and slowly walked away.

Witnesses recalled a strange rippling noise like a distant wind: it was the sound of men cheering along trenches that stretched from Alsace to the North Sea. The greatest and the first industrial-scale warin history was over; a monument, in the words of Martin Gilbert, to “self-perpetuating futility”.

Another well-known writer, John Keegan, describes the origins and length of the war as a mystery. Historians generally do better than this, but he has a point. Started by opportunists in pursuit of a quick victory, the war became a long drawn out act of suicide in which three old empires — German, Habsburg and Ottoman — disappeared; and a fourth — the Russian — reappeared as a soviet state.

It was the start of the short 20th century marked by tyranny, persecution and genocide. The cheers of November 1918 quickly died away. They led indirectly to the invasion of Poland 20 years later and another global war. It was a century of democracies versus warlords that apparently ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall; but was only truly complete with the defeat of Serb nationalism in the nineties. The short totalitarian century born to World War 1 also produced apartheid, of course. Its fall coincided, for similar reasons, with that of communism.

South Africa’s considerable contribution to World War 1 in-volved fighting in Namibia and East Africa, but is better remembered for the battle of Delville Wood and the loss of the Mendi, both still commemorated.

The casualties were fearsome, beyond comprehension in this day and age. Why did men carry on fighting beyond apparent reason under such appalling conditions?

It has been suggested that this war could never have been fought if television and the modern media had existed then. The British Empire lost a million personnel killed, half of whom were either never found or not identified. Much the same was experienced by the other major combatant nations.

Both my grandfathers survived. One was a sergeant in the Rifle Brigade who served in France and the Dardanelles; the other a gunner in the Royal Artillery in Macedonia and Palestine. The first had enormous scars from shrapnel, a missing finger and no sense of smell after a gas attack. The other also had wounds including a fragment of metal in the back of one hand. They spoke little about the war. Maybe they just wanted to forget all about it, especially having been misleadingly told that they had fought a war to end all wars.

As Siegfried Sassoon, who showed enormous physical and moral courage in questioning the war’s continuation and was sent to Craiglockhart Psychiatric Hospital, put it: “Well might the dead who struggled in the slime, Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.” He was referring to the Menin Gate memorial.

It was a conflict that produced more poetry and evocative art and photography than any other, but for many years it was consigned to the shadows; a historical embarrassment, perhaps. This has changed dramatically in the past few years. There has been an outpouring of literature, much of it written by the grandchildren of combatants wanting to make sense of events glimpsed fleetingly long ago in the lives of old relatives.

Fifty years ago buying a poppy before Remembrance Day in Britain was a quick act of duty, but that has changed. Whole towns come to a standstill for two minutes at 11 am, as they will today, in an act of all-embracing remembrance.

People can now find meaning in the short silence, whatever their view of war and the past.

There’s a lesson to be learnt here by South Africa. We have just marked, in a low-key way, the 10th anniversary of the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. The TRC did a good job, but there remain those who, for a variety of reasons, take issue with its purpose and findings. But time creates distance and new perspectives and almost always proves the point that the past was more complicated than we thought.

Perhaps South Africans could use November 11, Armistice Day, as an opportunity for remembrance of all aspects of this country’s fractured history in a quietly constructive way that contributes to a meaningful future. Any event involving quiet reflection would carry more value than the current noisy and discordant rhetoric.

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