This Sunday, the people of Shepton Mallet will assemble at our Cenotaph, as people all over the British Isles assemble at their local war memorials, to say some prayers, sing some hymns, mark the two minutes silence, then follow the Shepton Mallet silver band down the High Street to St Peter and St Paul’s church.
We do this in memory of the 173 men of Shepton Mallet named on the Cenotaph, who died in the two world wars, 140 in the First World War and 33 in the Second.
Scattered amongst us will be a few young men and women wearing medals of more recent wars. We are there for them also and for their comrades who did not return (none, so far as I know, from Shepton Mallet).
2019 will bring the centenary of the first Armistice Day, which we now mark on Remembrance Sunday (being the Sunday nearest to 11th November) each year.
Inevitably, after a hundred years, someone is going to ask why we should bother with Remembrance Sunday. Perhaps it would be better to stop celebrating the violence and enmities of an elitist, class-bound, chauvinistic past. We know so much better today. We have Twitter, Facebook and MSN.
There is and always has been a feeling that the two world wars were unnecessary and avoidable mistakes. Of course they were. It is in the nature of wars that there are two sides. Each side starts the war thinking that in the end it is going to win. One of them ends up losing. If the mistaken, losing side had refrained from engaging in the war, of course it could have been avoided. If it could have been avoided, then it is unnecessary. That is part of the sadness of wars.
Could the First World War have been avoided if the British had restrained the Russians and the French in the way they hoped the Germans would restrain the Austro-Hungarians? We now know that the French encouraged Russian belligerence every bit as much as the Germans egged on the Austro-Hungarians.
Likewise, could the Second World War have been avoided if the British and the French had been willing to take military action against Hitler when he rearmed, reoccupied the Rhineland, or threatened Czechoslovakia? On each occasion it is possible that the German military would have taken action to depose Hitler, to avert a war for which they were then ill-prepared.
The answer to these questions is ‘maybe – but we can never know’. Hindsight is a marvellous thing.
Nobody now doubts that Hitler’s plans for re-arranging Europe were a bad thing which had to be stopped – but was it worth the terrible cost of putting a stop to Kaiser Wilhelm II?
The experience of Belgium in August 1914 should persuade us that it was, as it persuaded many people across the world at the time. It also suggests that the fundamental problem, the cause of both world wars, might have been something more than an issue of international relations.
Of all the armies in the world in 1914, the German army that invaded Belgium was supposed to be the best trained, the most disciplined and, the Germans would have said, the most civilised and cultured. It had not been in a major war for over 40 years. A high proportion of its soldiers were reservists and had been living peaceably as civilians until a few days before arriving in Belgium. There had never been a war between Germany and Belgium and no cause for enmity or grudges.
Within a day or so of entering Belgium and France, German soldiers started killing civilians and burning towns and villages. Largely this was supposed to be in retaliation for imagined (but not investigated, confirmed or proven) acts of resistance. It is unlikely that there had been any resistance but, even if there had, it was largely obvious from the circumstances that the people killed were not responsible for it. The killings were an egregious breach of the Hague Convention to which Germany had subscribed in 1907 – in other words, they were what we would now call war crimes.
Altogether some 6,000 French and Belgium civilians, men women and children (including babies in their mothers’ arms) were killed by the German army between August and October 1914.
This shocked the world, but it did not shock the Germans.
The German Kaiser sent President Wilson of the USA a telegram in which he said that his heart bled for the people of Belgium but that it was all their own fault. The Belgian government had incited and organised its citizens to resist, so that his generals had been compelled “….to adopt the strongest measures to punish the guilty and frighten the bloodthirsty population from their dreadful deeds.”
In fact, the Belgian Government had done everything it could to discourage its people from offering resistance or providing the least excuse for German retaliation. It put up posters to this effect everywhere. On seeing these, the German General von Kluck dismissed them as incitements to do the very opposite.
This ‘look what you made me do’ logic was used later by Hitler in relation to the Jews. Had he not prophesied, he said, that if there was another World War (which of course would be started by the Jews) it would be the end of them (and all their own fault too)?
The beliefs and ideology of Hitler were rather different to those of Kaiser Wilhelm II. However, their underlying habits of thought and background assumptions about life were perhaps not so different.
The brutalising experience of trench warfare is often suggested as a factor in the extreme violence which characterised German political life after the First World War – and then the violence of the Nazis. No doubt it was. However what happened in Belgium shows that the German army was quite brutal enough before the first trench was dug and that German society was prepared to condone and support this.
That brutality, and the mindset which supported it, had to be stopped even at the cost of ferocious fighting and enormous loss of life. Hence there are 140 names on our Cenotaph for 1914 to 1918.
Inevitably, the Germans saw the peace imposed on them in 1918 as unfair, harsh, hypocritical and humiliating. The interesting point is this. The peace imposed on Germany after its unconditional surrender in 1945 was, from the German point of view, much worse. Yet the Germans chose to knuckle down and build a stable, sensible, prosperous Germany.
There is always a choice. In 1936 the Germans voted for Adolf Hitler. That is why our Cenotaph records 33 names for 1939-45. In 1949 they voted for Konrad Adenauer and the result was the German economic miracle. Judged by their choices, the German people changed profoundly after 1945. That change is the least celebrated outcome of two World Wars, but the most important in terms of the peace, prosperity and happiness of the whole of Europe.
As we stand in front of Shepton Mallet Cenotaph we need to remember and be thankful for that – thankful to the Germans that they changed – and thankful to the 173 men of Shepton Mallet whose deaths were a small part of the huge cost of making the change possible.
Our country too has made choices, not all of which have been good ones, so we must follow the sound teaching to “…cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.” (St Luke 6:41).
As we now know, the United Kingdom (together of course with the USA) invaded Iraq in 2003 before all diplomatic options had been exhausted, badly prepared and on a series of false premises – that the Iraqi Government had developed and was ready to deploy Weapons of Mass Destruction, that regime change would make Iraq a better place for Iraqis to live in and the world a safer place for everyone else.
We must remember all who have suffered as a result of our choices – good as well as bad, foe as well as friend.
On Remembrance Sunday, our political leaders, to whom we delegate many important choices, will be standing bare headed in front the Cenotaph in Whitehall. It is right and necessary that they should do so.
The choices that lie ahead of us may be just as hard as they were in August 1914 and September 1939. Poisonous nationalist and racist ways of thinking did not die with Adolf Hitler. National aggrandisement at the expense of others is still accepted as a legitimate goal in Russia, the largest European nation.
We must remember the steadfast commitment to doing the right thing of our forebears in 1914-1918 and 1939-1945.
Above all, we must remember that each name on every war memorial represents someone who had parents, brothers, sisters, friends, perhaps a spouse and children. We must remember the pain of lives cut short that echoes down the years. The more we despise and dread war and violence, the more we must insist on remembering the suffering that it brings.
We must remember all this on Remembrance Sunday, this year, next year and every year.