A few weeks ago I was on the French/Belgium border and revisited the First World War graves at Tyne Cot. The name ‘Tyne Cot’ reflects the wry humour of the British soldiers from Newcastle who dubbed a fiercely defended German bunker ‘Tyne Cottages’ as it vaguely resembled the silhouette of the terraced houses of their home city. The bunker is integrated into the cemetery. A poignant War Graves Commission cross now stands over it.
The remains of British and German soldiers are still being found buried beneath the ploughed fields and woodlands of the undulating Flanders landscape. They are reinterred side by side in the cemetery. Young men who will never grow old, lying next to each other in the land they fought so bitterly to defend and own - enemies no longer.
I recalled one of the war time experiences that my late father, John Mercer, shared with me when we visited Le Havre in the early Autumn of 2004 to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the port by allied forces. In September 1944, my father was an artillery spotter in a Bren Carrier which had edged towards the outer suburbs of Le Havre. The Bren Carrier ventured one hedgerow too far and my father and his four colleagues were captured by a small group of German soldiers, concealed behind the hedge. As the captives were prodded by their captors towards a subterranean bunker, British artillery reigned down on their position. My father recalled men in German and British uniforms flinging themselves on top of each other and clinging tightly to one another indiscriminately, as the earth erupted around them.
In the bunker lay horribly wounded German soldiers.
It was the first time my father had met the enemy face to face. Up until now Germans had been grey anonymous imagined figures of hate, responsible for his father’s death four years previously at the height of the Battle of Britain. His father, serving as an ARP warden, had been ushering civilians to safety in a municipal air-raid shelter as a striken Heinkel jettisoned its bombs before crashing nearby. My father’s anger and resentment was piqued when the crew of the Heinkel received the precedence of a burial accompanied by an RAF colour party. This honour had initially been promised to his father, an RAF veteran from 1914-18. Leonard Mercer was buried without honours or ceremony in the graveyard of Crayford parish church.
In the bunker, my father faced an enemy that was no longer imaginary or anonymous. The German soldiers were young men like him - caught up in a conflict not of their making and fearful for their lives. Conversations in broken German and English were struck up and a cautious comradeship in adversity, that transcended nationality, began to be established. The enemy ceased to be faceless figures of hate, the feared others - rather they were revealed as fellow humans, with families, loved ones, stories, hopes and fears.
Such was the rapid rapport which developed, that it was agreed that the German soldiers, largely for the sake of their wounded, would surrender to the five British soldiers they had captured. Fortunes were reversed and my father found himself accompanying the German soldiers, as prisoners, back to British lines. Sad to tell, they were not well treated by the advancing infantry.
Recognising the humanity of the enemy was a profound step in my father’s journey in becoming a Christian. He came to own the truth and challenge in Jesus teaching:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:43-47).
My father firmly believed that the sacrifice of so many in two world wars was not ultimately in vain. He rejoiced that, over the subsequent seventy years or so, he had seen something of an out working of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 2.4) - in Europe at least. There had been no conflicts between European nations - with the exception of the Balkan states. Through good will, creative political cooperation, shared economic objectives and mutual democratic accountability, swords had progressively been turned into pruning hooks and spears into ploughshares.
We now find ourselves facing increasingly uncertain times, where suspicion and demonisation of the other is commonly expressed in political and media discourse. A rise of narrow introspective isolationist nationalism in Europe and the USA seeks to build on the myth of - and nostalgia for - previously better times that have never existed. Populists assert malign influence by riding the waves of discontent with disingenuous isolationist promises to ‘make us great again’ or to ‘take back control’. We have met their type before and paid a terrible price for their folly.
If our remembrance of those who gave so much for the peace and security of Europe is to mean anything tangible, we must be alert to the signs of our times, lest their sacrifice be squandered through insidious projected fear of the other and ignorance of politics and history. We must not, in the words of the poet John MacCrae, ‘break faith with those who died’.
James Mercer is the Associate Minister within the Benefice of St Aldhelm, Purbeck.