10 Nov 2013

Lest We Forget

We had been given no choice. We were working-class lads who'd been taken off the factory floor or agricultural field and summoned to serve the powers that be for a war we had little or no understanding of.

Our infantry battalions marched on for days and nights and we fought as we were ordered, a horrid relentless raging battle that symbolises the absurdity of the human race. To kill or to get killed. Those who disobeyed military orders were simply shot down 'to set an example' to the rest of us.

'Stormtroops Advancing Under a Gas Attack' (1924), by © Otto Dix, via National Gallery of Australia

As much as the humanitarianism of our luminary counterparts (free thinkers, scientists, professors, etc.) had helped raise awareness and manifest, support, promulgate and protect all aspects of educational, philosophical, social, legal, political and technical progress and advancement aimed at bettering the life conditions of our peers regardless of their social origins, for the greater good of all individuals as the ultimate purpose, the abnegation, destruction and annihilation brought about by war came as a contradiction.

Our regiments were deployed to the front battlefields of The Somme, Chemin des Dames and Verdun to feed the heavy cannon-fodder artillery machines, while a clique of portly generals and high commanders watched from a safe distance, smoking cigars, clinking Cognac glasses and pushing clusters of batallion figurines across a battlefield map that might well have been a chessboard.

The irony of it was that we were sent to fight working-class lads who'd been taken off the factory floor or agricultural field from the other side of the border and summoned to serve the powers that be for a war they too had little or no understanding of.

Reality was stranger than fiction! 'Paths of Glory' (1957), by Stanley Kubrick, with Kirk Douglas

One day when the battle wasn't raging on in our neck of the woods, three of my comrades and I had a chance encounter with a couple of those lads on our way to the river, ordinary folks like us, with a wife and kids back home. We quickly realised they weren't out to kill us. They looked weary, sick with anguish like us, they too had witnessed the unspeakable horror of the front, and a part of them had died in the soggy trenches, across the desolate no man's lands, through to the muddy fields strewn with putrescent corpses and body parts, and agonising comrades begging to be shot dead as death was their only deliverance from this living nightmare.

We swapped a cigarette or two as an ice-breaker. Then we got those old crumpled family photos out of our pockets and we showed them to those guys. They did the same. We kept quiet for a moment, fighting back emotion, standing next to one another in silent dignity. Then we smiled, exchanged a few words, despite the language barrier we did understand one another. We knew the odd German word, "Krieg, großes unglück !", we used sign language, we nodded together empathetically. One of us even started humming 'Mademoiselle from Armentières' and we swayed along to the song.

Then a younger lad from their regiment - who couldn't be older than 15 - came up with a football and we all started kicking the ball around. We ran around like reborn teenagers and we cheered as each team scored. I couldn't remember the last time I had laughed. We played for 5 minutes, possibly longer, who knows? Then we patted each other on the back as we parted, wished one another luck and went our separate ways. The night after this encounter, each one of us prayed to God that we would stay safe, and that they too would stay safe, and that if we were to see them in person again by a curious twist of fate, it would be like today - as friends. To swap a word, a smile, a cigarette, and to kick a ball around. Like friends. The most human and humane act of friendship that comes to mind.

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