Monday, 2 March 2009

I am the enemy you killed, my friend

Wilfred Owen was killed on 4 November 1918. The First World War ended on 11 November. Another week, and one of our finest poets would have been spared, perhaps to write with poignancy about peace as he had written with horror about war.

‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’ are the words that are spoken to the poet by the soldier he had killed the day before, as he in turn walks down the slope towards hell. ‘For by my glee might many men have laughed, And of my weeping something had been left, Which must die now,’ he tells Owen of the wasted richness that his death entails.

Meetings between living soldiers tend to be more cheerful. My father once met a German who had served in the anti-aircraft artillery during the Second World War, when my father was flying bombers for the RAF. The job of the man he met was to shoot down men like my father. They had, however, both been young men fighting the same war, so far more united them than drove them apart. Soon they were exchanging anecdotes.

The German told the story of his one kill during the war. Their gun emplacement had been badly positioned, just the wrong side of a hill crest. This meant that when RAF bombers came into sight it was far too late to open fire with any hope of hitting them. In frustration they pleaded with the local spotting service to give them the earliest possible notice of the arrival of a plane with accurate information of where it was likely to appear for the brief moment they would be able to fire at it.

One night, they were told that a British plane was on its way, chased towards them by a German fighter. The spotters gave them precise indications of where the plane was going to come over the crest above them. Quickly, they sighted on the position. Seconds later they heard the deep-throated roar of aero engines followed by the sight of a British bomber coming over the hill and down towards them. They opened fire and got in several shots. For the first time ever, they hit a plane and brought it down in the field below them.

They rushed over to celebrate. As they reached the scene, however, they saw to their consternation that the downed plane had German markings on its wings. They had hit the pursuing fighter, not the fleeing bomber. Suddenly and with furious violence, the cockpit cover was thrust back. An irate German pilot emerged. He threw his helmet to the ground, cursed them all roundly, and stalked off into the darkness never to be seen again.

My father’s meeting with an erstwhile enemy was by no means exceptional, or even the most dramatic instance of its kind. For example, Bill Pearce, who had been a radio operator in a Lancaster bomber, travelled to Salzburg after the war, to meet Walter Telsnig who had flown the Messerschmitt fighter that had shot him down. The two became friends. Pearce said that ‘at the time it was war and he was doing what he was supposed to be doing, and was trained to do, and so was I.’ Apparently, the two men spent hours talking and swapping war stories.

Heartening tales. But neither man in the Owen poem would be granted that luxury. Instead, they would be left to mourn ‘the undone years, the hopelessness’ of lives cut short. Men have always told amusing stories about war, because they hide a grim reality. But if, as Owen tells us in another great poem, we really understood that reality,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

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