The faces of heroes

Jan 26th, 2014 | By | Category: International

Graffiti in college days was more intellectual than the scrawls on the walls that appear everywhere now. Thirty years ago, the First World War was still in living memory and people would still have remembered names from those times. A graffito in one toilet read, “Archduke Ferdinand found alive – First Word War a mistake”.

The assassination of the Austrian archduke in June 1914 by a Bosnian nationalist in Sarajevo triggered an illogical, cataclysmic chain reaction across Europe. The Austrians declared war on Serbia; the Russians declared war on the Austrians; the Germans declared war on the Russians, even though they had not liked Archduke Ferdinand; and the downward spiral into hell continued.

The war depended on the demonisation of the enemy, otherwise its pointlessness would have quickly become apparent to anyone not seized by an insane appetite for blowing working men to pieces. Fraternisation of any sort threatened the propaganda from both sides that they were fighting on the side of God against the forces of evil, German army belt buckles were even inscribed with the words, ‘God with us’. Moments like Christmas 1914, when the soldiers realized those on the other side of No Man’s Land’ were not much different from themselves, contradicted the images sown by the high commands.

When the enemy is made of the same flesh and blood, with the same hopes and dreams, and shares the same anxieties and fears, it is hard to inculcate a desire to run him through with an 18 inch bayonet.

The reality of the First World War ‘enemy’ comes home in the church porch at Bad Hofgastein. The First World War memorial here differs from most found elsewhere in the world. The losses of 1914-1918 obviously had a profound effect upon a traditional, rural community: the village organized itself to procure photographs of each of the fallen and to incorporate them into the memorial. Dozens of youthful faces stare out across the decades, eyes staring through history. “Unsere helden” declares the inscription above the photographs, “our heroes”, though it is hard to imagine there were many families who would not have preferred a live son, husband or brother  to one who was a dead hero. The battles in which many Austrian soldiers fell are hardly remembered in Western Europe – battles like that at Piave River in 1918, a battle fought between Italy and Austria-Hungary which cost 43,000 dead or wounded and 50,000 captured on the Italian side and 60,000 dead, 90,000 wounded, and 25,000 captured among the forces of Austria-Hungary

On the losing side, fighting battles unknown to many, the photographs declare they will not be forgotten.

Bad Hofgastein Memorial

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