In the summer of 2017 I took a trip to see all the battlefields of the Somme and Verdun and the area of northern France known as the Front Line, where German and Allied guns rained fire down on one another for four years during the Great War. On my bike I slowly traced my way past Memorial after Memorial and graveyard after graveyard commemorating the fallen of 1914-1918.
It was very ghostly and moving and very hard to understand.
One morning I wheeled my bike down a track into a wood at the base of a hill, leant it up against a gate and sat on the grass to eat lunch. It was very still and peaceful and afterwards I slept for half an hour. The hill was Thiepval ridge, I later learned that for three months in 1916 my resting place was the exact spot the Allies and the Germans had fought out one of the fiercest battles of the Somme at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.
That wood where I stopped a while, the earth where I laid my head, the stillness of that afternoon, had witnessed another story. One that even with all my concentration I found difficult to comprehend. And it recalled a realisation I’d had, this time in a field in Germany, that made my own understanding of War a little clearer.
Flat-lining on the sofa one sunday afternoon in the grip of a cheese coma, tap-tapping through the buttons on the Sky remote I arrived at the History Channel and a documentary about the rise of Nazi Germany. I looked over at my old man with a raised eye-brow to see if he was in. Staring back at the screen with a glazed look that said he was faring little better himself from a reblochon overdose, he grunted a noise my way which i took as clear encouragement to change the channel.
I think it’s important to watch this though, I asserted self-importantly.
What happened next stayed with me. He snapped out of his cheese coma with a seamlessness only a man with half a century of sunday lunches under his belt could possible have had the opportunity to master, and sat up. He then looked me in the eye very seriously and said:
I think it’s the most important thing people of your generation need to know about, and make sure they remember. The most. Without doubt. I just don’t feel like watching it right now.
Perhaps this has more resonance given that my father is Argentine, and in 1945 when the second world war ended he was three years old and living in Buenos Aires, 8,000 miles away from the dust-cloud settling across Europe. None of his family were involved in the war. He came over here in the 70s and finds the patriotism of his adopted country often blind and difficult to stomach. So for him to tell me the war is something our generation has an absolute duty to be aware of and to remember hit home.
The Japanese have a word 被爆者 Hibakusha which is the name given to the survivors of the A-bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. It literally means radiation-affected people. Recently in Hiroshima there has been a collective sadness that with time fewer and fewer Hibakusha remain alive, and with that the last direct living tie with what happened will disappear. As the new generation comes up, there is a fear that people will begin to forget.
The ceremony of Armistice Day is handsdown one of the coolest things about the British. When the whole of Whitehall falls silent and the guy gets out the bugle and plays the Last Post, it’s pretty hardcore. In light of this making sure to remember, and the difficulty our generation has in getting our heads around the horror of war, something we have been blessed to avoid and yet also cursed by our ignorance of, something happened to me last year that gave me a new understanding of the whole thing.
On a cycle ride up through the middle of Germany on my way to Berlin, one summer’s afternoon I came into a town in the north of Bavaria called Brunn. It was tiny. I free-wheeled through it, and on my way out I passed a war memorial, recognising it at half-glance as one does with the familiar. A minute or so later as the town was disappearing over my right shoulder, I semi-froze. And cycled back.
It was exactly like so many of the war memorials that stand on village greens throughout England, even in rural Scottish villages they are there, tributes to the Glorious Dead. My cycle ride had taken me through the whole of France, where every single town or hamlet has a memorial to soldiers killed in the wars. So when I saw this one I didn’t think twice.
But what cracked me clean across the temple was the realisation that this was the other side’s.
As self-evident as that sounds, what confounded me was that it was the first time I’d understood the other side’s perspective. Here was a tiny town with name upon name of soldiers, from that town, that had died in the First World War, mourned by surviving relatives of that town, suffering the confusion and tragedy brought on them by the Powers That Be embarking on a war of such aggression, that our generation is incapable of imagining it.
The inhabitants of Brunn, up on that hill in northern Bavaria, what possible say could they have had in a war that announced itself one morning, and went on to steal their sons and daughters and change their lives forever. How helpless must they have felt.
It was the first time that what we learnt in school to call the enemy now existed in my head as real people. Soldiers just as young and innocent as the names inscribed on the walls of memorials all over Britain. And how the mothers and daughters of Brunn must have thought about the Allies just as we thought of the Bosch, just as much the enemy, figures of hatred responsible for all the death and destruction and pain they were feeling. For that afternoon I was on the German side, and it all made more sense and became even more confusing.
For us it is history. For our great-grandparents it was a worst nightmare that begun one day, and from that moment on this nightmare morphed day by day into a horrifying reality. It was waking up one morning to a radio broadcast, that turned into a month, that turned into six years, that turned into a dark shadow over their minds that lived with them for the rest of their lives.