RECONCILIATION

August 02, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

 

Address delivered by Bill Power at the

Remembrance Day Commemoration

in Christ Church, Fermoy, Sunday 11th November 2007

 

 

When you are standing at your hero's grave,

Or near some homeless village where he died,

Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride,

The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

 

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;

And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.

But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find

The mothers of the men who killed your son.

 

Those words reeled ‘round my head when I walked through the German war mausoleum at Mont d’Huisnes, near Mont St. Michel in Normandy. We had spent the previous few days visiting the beaches of the Normandy D-Day landings of 1944, and, of course, we also made the obligatory pilgrimages to some of the World War II cemeteries that dot the Normandy landscape.

Earlier in the day, I had visited the American cemetery at St.-Laurent-sur-Mer, near the Ponte du Hoc. The atmosphere is one of victory. One passes a church on the way-in to row after row of impersonal white crosses that lead to a muscular white giant that dominates the manicured lawns. As we were leaving, I went into the imposing church. I saw to my astonishment that its walls are dominated by battlefield plans and diagrams, covered with surging arrows and pincer movements. ‘How American,’ I thought, and I wrote in the visitor book, ‘C’est magnifique, mais c’est ne pas la guerre.’ It is magnificent, but it is not war.

Later in the afternoon, we went to see Normandy’s biggest German cemetery at Mont d’Huisnes. This is a disturbing testimony to the futility of war. Perched on the side of a hill and visible for miles around, its tall steel cross emerges from the centre of a circular mausoleum that holds the remains of 11,887 German soldiers.

When we got there, I told my wife that I wanted to go around the mausoleum on my own and asked her to divert her 84 year old uncle away with her. Fr Celsus was a retired parish priest with the curiousity of a five-year old. He had a tremendous intellect but sometimes his probing questions were more than I could tolerate, especially as he was hard of hearing and the replies required loud answers. This was a place of silence.

So, as we entered the building through a reception dedicated to peace and reconciliation, I bolted and went off on my own. Mont d’Huisnes is a sobering place. Its centre is covered by a lawn out of which rises a huge white cross. I walked around, entering each storey of the mausoleum from an external stairs. Each level is filled with thousands of Germans filed away into cold concrete vaults. There is no attempt to defend the indefensible here and yet one feels an overpowering sense of sorrow.

I was and am in no doubt that these men had to die so that Hitler and the Nazis would die with them. I found it difficult to feel sorrow for the men lying there. The Our Father reeled around my head, and I thought of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, ‘Reconciliation.’

When you are standing at your hero’s grave,

Or near some homeless village where he died,

Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride,

The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

 

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;

And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.

But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find

The mothers of the men who killed your son.

 

There was a handful of other people walking around the mausoleum. Some spoke German; perhaps, sons or daughters of men lying there. I saw that a few vaults had wreaths or little flowers, but most did not. All these years later, I still cannot make up my mind about those German soldiers lying at Mont d’Huisnes. Were they the pawns of mad men or the willing led by a cause so abhorrent that it defies understanding or forgiveness?

As we left after a visit of an hour or more, we passed a large black granite slab with lists of names on it. ‘They must be the generals,’ said Fr Celsus. We took a closer look. The only German I speak is what I learned from history books or from reading childhood war stories. I had enough to understand ‘kinder’ ‘soldat.’ 187 of them. Children soldiers, under the age of fourteen - ‘Reconciliation’ and the ‘Our Father’ still reels round my head.

At Bayeux a few days later, we walked through the biggest British cemetery in Normandy. It does not have the brash American declarations of ‘how wonderful we were to beat the Nazis.’ The British have an altogether different understanding of war. Yes, they won, but look at the price that was paid. In that cemetery, like so many others, were men from County Cork who volunteered to join a cause with a former foe against the evils of Nazism and Hitler. Despite holding the graves of over 12,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers, Bayeux is personal, intimate.

Unlike other nations, the British gave the families of their war dead the option of adding a motto of their choosing onto their soldier’s headstones: - ‘One corner of a foreign field that is forever England.’ ‘One day we will understand.’ ‘Our lad at rest.’ On one headstone I recognised a symbol that would be understood by any scout who knows his tracking trail signs – a circle, with a dot in the centre. It means, simply, ‘Gone Home.’

During another visit to France, this time the Charente region, when Fr Celsus was again with us – he was now 85 years old – he frequently remarked that ‘the Germans didn’t do a lot of damage around here.’ It was a comment that exasperated me and I decided to do something about it.

So, one Sunday I invited him to come with me to a place called Oradour-sur-Glane, 15 miles north-west of Limoges. The village of Oradour-sur-Glane stands just as the soldiers of the SS das Reich Division left it on 10 June 1944. I told Fr Celsus nothing of what to expect before we got there. As we approached the gate, I pointed to a sign ‘Silence’ and to another sign ‘Souviens-toi’ - Remember.

Then I told him about the afternoon of the 10 June, when a detachment of the SS das Reich Division arrived into the village and rounded up every man, woman and child. The women and children were taken to the church. The men were removed to three stone barns. Sometime later, the village doctor, who had been away on a sick call, returned in his motorcar. He was shot dead as he got out of it. A short time later, another shot was fired. It was signal. The three barns were set on fire and anyone who tried to escape was machine-gunned. At the same moment, the church was engulfed with a fire bomb that killed all those inside. The village of Oradour was completely destroyed by fire. Afterwards, when de Gaulle came there, he declared Oradour-sur-Glane a National War Memorial and ordered that it be enclosed with a high wall.

635 men, women and children were murdered in Oradour that afternoon, but as awful as that sounds, it pales into insignificance compared to the twelve million who died in the Nazi concentration camps between 1940 and 1945.

I walked about ten yards ahead of Fr Celsus as we went up the main street. I was again avoiding questions and wanted to take in what I was seeing. This too was a place of silence. The roofless houses of the village streets were all that was left of them after the fire. Rusting cars and bicycles are left exactly as they had been found by the Allies. Telephone poles, tram cables and gutters are fixed in tormented attitudes where the fire’s heat left them. Other cars rust in garages. The grape bushes have gone wild and are never picked. At the church, a molten lump of bronze is all that is left of its bell - bronze melts at 3,200 degrees centigrade. As we walked away from the church, with me keeping my ten-yard distance from him, I looked around for Fr Celsus. He had a rosary beads in his hand. My point was made. Later, as we drove away from Oradour, he said ‘I never thought the Germans were that bad.’ But they were and he, like thousands of other Irishmen and women of his generation never really comprehended what was going on in the continent in a war that became known in Ireland as ‘The Emergency.’

During that time, my father was a member of the Local Defence Force, or as we later called it, the F.C.A. His service certificate is at home in a drawer and I am proud that he and others like him were prepared to do their best at home for Ireland’s independence and neutrality. Some revisionist historians have taken to condemning Irish neutrality during the Second World War as an act of cowardice. I believe that perceptions of our past need to be challenged and, if necessary, rewritten. I have no fear of revisionism but its conclusions must be based on facts and not agendas. Too much of Ireland’s history has been written from the perspective of one tradition or another, without any regard for the other person’s point of view.

I do not find it inexplicable that Ireland remained neutral in the Second World War. I believe that, politically, de Valera would have plunged Ireland into civil war if we had gone into the World War on the Allied side or any other side. That could only have benefited the Nazis.  As an historian, I believe that, for reasons right or wrong, he was making a declaration about Irish independence that no Irish leader had been able to make for 600 years. We were tragically naïve and our behaviour, towards the Jews who sought refuge here before, during and after the war, can never be erased from our nation’s copybook. That attitude was driven by narrow minded Catholic doctrine far removed from the Christianity that it purported to espouse.

But de Valera was correct to allow Irish men and women to join the British, American and other Allied forces. Our contribution to the war, through them, was considerable but it has been neglected for far too long. The Irishmen of World War I and World War II were written out of our history. They and their relatives were called names, spat at, made the subject of nasty remarks and stupid innuendo. Irishmen who fought bravely at Ypres, the Sommes, Gallipoli, Normandy, Berlin, and on countless other battlefields, had to go to England or, worse still, keep their mouths shut when they were at home. The conflict and sectarianism of Northern Ireland did not speed efforts at reconciliation between the traditions on this island.

Over the years, I have sometimes thought of Elizabeth Bowen’s remark that World War I was really the first phase of a war in Ireland. ‘For Ireland,’ she said, ‘between 1918 and 1939, peace contracted into a shorter space than people in England realise – in fact, perhaps one does not say of Ireland that war began again, but that war resumed.’

But peace has come to Ireland. I wept when I heard that Bertie Ahern had given a bowl made of Irish yew from the site of the Battle of the Boyne to Rev. Dr Ian Paisley and his wife, Eileen, to mark their 50th wedding anniversary. Apparently, it made a profound impression on the Paisleys and, in a small but significant way, made it possible for him to visit the site of the Battle of the Boyne earlier this year. On that occasion, he gave the Taoiseach a musket from the Battle. They laughed and joked. Lord, how things have changed!

I am a child of the Sixties. Among my childhood and teenage memories is Mr Clemenger, who called to our door selling Poppies around this time of year. I remember, at least once, asking my mother what the Poppies were for. She told me that ‘those people’ (I presume she meant the British Legion) did a lot of good for the Irish soldiers who fought in the First World War, which, she added, was more than the Irish government ever did for them.

I had a neighbour, Tom Feeney, who fought in the War of Independence and went on to become a soldier in the Free State Army. Another neighbour, Tom’s brother-in-law, Georgie Donegan, was as staunch a Fianna Fail republican as one could ever meet. The two men taught me military drill in Georgie’s back yard. Thanks to them, I can still present arms, slope arms, stand at ease, stand to attention, and carry out other basics of military drill. But I never joined the army. Like many boys of my generation, I had a fascination with war because we, more than any other generation, grew up against the backdrop of shootings, bombings, punishment beatings and the beastiality of what became euphemistically known as ‘The Northern Troubles.’

I still have a fascination with war. But it’s not the fascination that makes a boy want to go out with a gun, kill the bad guys and come home a hero. Having put away some childish things, I have come to understand a little of what war and hatred is about. I have met Zoltan Zinn Collis, a survivor of Bergin-Belsin, who was four years old when the camp was liberated. He was sitting on his mother’s dead body playing with stones. She had died only 20 minutes earlier and liberation for her was death. Zoltan, his brother and sister, were adopted by Bob Collis, a noted Irish doctor who served with the Army Medical Corps during the war. If anyone wonders what the Second World War was really about then they should talk to Zoltan.

As a Regional Commissioner in scouting in the early 1990s, I made it a point of principal to wear the Poppy on my uniform. I recall the consternation it caused among a tiny but vociferous handful of my leaders. But I wore the Poppy for the Dr Collis’s, the Murphys, the Kielys, the O’Donoghues, the Condons and all those others whom I never knew, who fought for the freedoms that I, and we, enjoy. I also wear it for that scout in Bayeux, whose name I have forgotten, but who has ‘Gone Home.’ Fermoy has recently commemorated its World War dead; Mitchelstown will, I hope, do so soon, and so it should be.

To me, the Poppy is not just a symbol of remembrance, because in Ireland, it also symbolises reconciliation with those Irish men and Irish women who fought for us, but were written out of our history. Thank god that time has passed and we remember.

 

Souvient-toi! Remember them.

 

 

 

 

 


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