I watched ‘Songs of Praise’ for Remembrance Sunday on the BBC this evening. It was an excellent programme, but it was troubling. The footage from Flanders was the poignant sight of British military cemeteries, a generation of young men slaughtered. Every gravestone shown in the programme seemed to bear a cross; but those from a Christian background were only part of the Western Front story.
Last year we spent part of our holiday in the department of Aisne, about forty miles north east of Paris. It’s a pleasant part of France, forests, rolling farmland and small towns. It’s hard to imagine that events of world importance once took place in this tranquil location.We stayed just outside of the town of Compiegne; near a forest clearing where on 11th November 1918 a railway carriage was the scene of the signing of the Armistice that brought the First World War to an end. The countryside around was dotted with cemeteries, both French and German, each of them a silent witness to the horrors of the four years that preceded the Armistice.
The village in which we stayed, Vic-sur-Aisne, had a French military cemetery on its northern outskirts. One evening, close to sunset we wandered up to look around the cemetery. The French tend to have white crosses rather than headstones marking their graves, meaning it is much easier to spot graves of men who were not from a Christian background.
We walked between rank upon rank of crosses.Sometimes there would be a headstone with a Jewish Star of David inscribed upon it; sometimes there were headstones with no religious symbols, France has been a secular country for a long time. At the top of the cemetery there were lines and lines of headstones, it seemed strange—who were these men? When we got to the graves it became apparent, each of the stones had what we assumed to be Arabic script at the top, because each of the men had Arabic names. These were the graves of Moslems who had died fighting in the French army, ‘Mort Pour La France’.
This didn’t fit in with the view of history I grew up with. The Moslems in our view of history were the bad guys, the Turks were Moslems and the Turks were our enemies.Yet, here in this anonymous corner of northern France, were the graves of dozens and dozens of Moslems who had died in the trenches on the Western Front, fighting for our side.
It is troubling when history is not straightforward, it’s much easier to think in terms of good guys and bad guys. When we read from Isaiah 65:25, ‘The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox’; when we hear about the wolf and the lamb feeding together; we know which one we are, we are the lamb, we are the victim, the other side is the wolf, the other side is the aggressor.
Isn’t this the view of the world that George Bush and Tony Blair want us to accept? We are the victims suffering the aggression of the axis of terror, Moslems, whatever their background, are the wolves waiting to prey upon us. Moslems lying in a French cemetery confuse the picture.
President Bush is no worse than any of us in trying to see history as something where our side is the good side and the other side is the bad side. Growing up in England when memories of World War II were fresh and when colony after colony was becoming independent, there was no doubt in my mind that we were the heroes and anyone who opposed us was automatically a villain. I think if you went to any English pub you wouldn’t find many blokes who would differ from the view that the British were a decent lot who believed in fairplay. When it came to wolves and lambs and lions and oxen, then we were the lamb and the ox, we were the victims of aggression.
Having grown up with this very clear version of history, it took some adjustment to live in Ireland, where the British are not the heroes, but the oppressors in history. The Irish Nationalist version of history is, understandably, very different from the British, the lamb in the Nationalist view is the Irish people and the British are the wolves.
Even Remembrance Sunday, a solemn moment in the British calendar, is a matter of controversy for those who don’t share our view of history.
In 1998 when the peace park and memorial to the Irish Divisions was dedicated at Messines in Flanders, President McAleese talked about the ‘redeeming of the memory’ of the Irish who had died during the First World War. We are still a long way from that point, if we could redeem that memory, if we could come to some agreed view of the events of those times, we would take a giant step towards redeeming other memories that divide us and would make a decisive move towards lasting piece and reconciliation. If the Germans could take part in the Normandy commemorations in 2004, surely in this country we might one day reach a point where everyone might commemorate both Armistice Day and Easter 1916.
The Moslem graves in the cemetery at Vic-sur-Aisne are a reminder that history is no simple matter.Look at Isaiah’s words, peace is no simple matter.
‘“The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
but dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the LORD’
There are no winners or losers in Isaiah’s vision, no-one is written out of the story, even the serpent, the worst of creatures, has a place in the scheme of the things.
Isaiah gives a starting point for understanding what is necessary for peace—everyone must be included.
Moslems in a French graveyard should make us question our assumptions and should make us ask what it is we must do to fulfil a vision of peace.