Saturday 18 December 2004

War, friend only to the undertaker

Despite all appearances to the contrary, I'm something of a soppy bugger. I cried during BBC sports personality of the year when they showed that little girl winning the Helen Rollason award. I'm also a total sucker for war films. The beginning of "Saving Private Ryan" always makes me blub, and I was a dead loss during "Band of Brothers", especially in the episode set in the Bastogne starring the Easy Company medic, Eugene Roe.

Talking to that cabbie the other day about the first world war brought to mind a story told to me by my girlfriend. C.'s maternal grandfather was a glider pilot during D-Day. On D-Day itself, his glider was released in the wrong place, and was forced to crash land deep behind enemy lines. C's grandfather was shot in the stomach by the Germans as he left the glider, but was lucky enough to be found by the teenage son and daughter of a french farmer who lived nearby. The Germans discovered them, and tried to force the son & daughter to bury C's grandfather whilst he was still alive. To their great personal risk, and to their eternal credit, they refused, and instead tended for the dying soldier for the rest of the day until he passed away.

A tragic story, I'm sure you will agree, but surely not unique in this global conflict. What makes this story personal for me is that last year, C. and her mother made a trip to the village where this brave man died. C's mother had only been very young when her father had died, and had never really had the opportunity to get to know him. As it happens, they now live in France, and so they made something of a pilgrimmage to see where her father had died. When they reached the village where he had been killed, they met the farmer's son and daughter who had risked so much and much to their surprise, they discovered that every armistice day the entire village still turned out at C's grandfather's grave to lay a wreath - he had been the first liberating allied soldier that they had seen since the german occupation- and as such they still honoured his sacrifice every year in the same way that we honour the tomb of the unknown soldier.

I find that story intensely moving. Every time I tell it to someone, I find myself on the edge of tears. It is a very personal story that tells of the suffering and sacrifice that an ordinary person can make at a time of war.

I am opposed to war in general, and to the war in Iraq specifically, but this should not, and does not get in the way of the massive respect that I have for the soldiers that are fighting in this, or in any other war. On any side.

I was reading the other day about the Christmas truce that took place in 1914 between the allied and German trenches in the First World War - the one where the troops on either side laid aside their differences for a few hours, put down their weapons and played a game of football in No-Man's land. For me, it's a powerful reminder of the fact that whatever the politics of the situation, whatever the rights and wrongs, we must never forget that ordinary people, on both sides, are fighting and dying.

Whatever your politics, whatever your religious beliefs, whether you believe that what they are fighting for is right or if it is wrong, let's try to remember the sacrifices that ordinary people make at a time of war, on both sides.

Damn - I'm feeling sentimental this evening.

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