Friday, 11 November 2011

Lest we forget

Today was the eleventh day of the eleventh month and, by happy chance, of the eleventh year of the present century.

At eleven o’clock this morning, Britain held a two-minute silence in memory of the dead of the First World War. And the Second World War. And all the other wars we seem to keep on fighting with monotonous consistency, generating ever more dead. Even though the number of dead we suffer tends to be incomparably lower than the number we inflict, particularly among civilians, every single one of them is a sad blow that deserves to be marked.

So 11 November is not a cheerful moment in this country. The French have a holiday; we have two minutes silence.

Many people like to tell me about the timing of the First World War Armistice. Their voice becomes incantatory and their eyes open wide, as they intone with mystic solemnity ‘the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’, with awestruck resonance.

Now I like to think I’m as sensitive to symbols as the next man, but this particular instance leaves me uncomfortable. To explain why, let me just mention four names: George Edwin Ellison, Augustin Trébuchon, George Lawrence Price and Henry Gunther.

George Edwin Allison fought at the Battle of Mons, one of the first engagements of the war, in 1914. He was killed at 9:30 in the morning of Armistice day, an hour and a half before the fighting stopped, the last British death.

Augustin Trébuchon was the last French soldier killed, at 10:45. He was on his way to tell his comrades that soup would be served immediately after the cease fire – talk about dying for a hot meal.

George Lawrence Price was the last Canadian and last Commonwealth soldier killed. He was hit by a sniper’s bullet at 10:57 and died at 10:58.

The last allied soldier killed, an American, was Henry Gunther; he’s recognised as the last soldier to die in action in the war, when he was charging a position held by Germans who knew the armistice was going to start – sixty seconds later – and were trying to tell the Americans to stop.

In all, nearly 3000 men were killed between the moment the armistice was agreed and the moment it came into effect. It may just be me, but that sounds like a high price for a symbol.

Perhaps it isn’t inappropriate that we mark the anniversary with solemnity rather than good cheer.

Wreaths of poppies, the symbol of World War One,
at the Cenotaph in London

Postscript. This feels like a good place to tell a First World War story.

Adolf Hitler served for the whole of the war. He didn’t have what you might call a glittering career, never making it beyond the rank of corporal – he was considered for promotion but his superiors decided that he didn’t have leadership qualities, which is amusing: the German word ‘Führer’ means leader.

Though he didn’t move far up the ranks, Hitler did win a couple of iron crosses, one second class, the other first. He was a despatch runner. The action that won him the second and superior decoration took place at a moment when communications to a front line unit were completely down. A lieutenant told Hitler and one of his colleagues that if they could get a message through, he would personally ensure that they both won the Iron Cross first class. Both got through, both got back.

That was an action that certainly took courage, but the lieutenant’s superiors felt that it wasn’t perhaps the kind of conspicuous gallantry for which a top decoration should be awarded. Hitler must have shared that scepticism: in later life, the story told was that he’d won it by personally capturing fifteen French soldiers – that certainly sounds more glorious than simply running from point A to point B, even under fire.

But the lieutenant was a man of his word and argued for a month to ensure both men got the decorations he had promised them.

Now that’s not a bad story, I hope you’ll agree.

What turns it into an outstanding one is that this honourable man, who took such trouble to ensure that Hitler was awarded his highest honour, was a Lieutenant Hugo Gutmann.

A Jew.


Malc said...

Mind boggling... difficult to think of anything to say really.

David Beeson said...

I guess that says it all...