Today is Rememberance Day, also known as Poppy Day or Armistice Day and observed in all Commonwealth countries ever since the end of World War I. It is a day to remember all members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty, and is annually observed on the anniversary of the end of World War I hostilities that came at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
Because of the mention of poppies in the poem “In Flanders Fields” written by Canadian physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, which bloomed across some of the worst battlefields of Flanders, this flower has become the emblem of Remembrance Day. It’s colour, red, is an appropriate symbol for all the blood spilled during that and every other human war.
Today I am reminded of a Christmas Day in the mid ‘80s that I spent with my one-time next-door-neighbours in Singapore, Regine, an Austrian if I remember correctly, and her husband Richard, from Swiss-Germany. On the Christmas I’m thinking about they had some old and very dear German friends staying, and they kindly invited me over on Christmas afternoon for a drink to meet them.
I don’t remember their names, but they were a sweet couple, quite a few years older than the rest of us. As we steadily demolished bottle after bottle of the delicious Eiswein they’d brought with them from Germany, the stories also started to flow. One, in particular, I will never forget.
My neighbours’ friend told us that, when he was a young lad, he’d been called up to fight in the German army during World War II. He was very young, I remember. Could he have been just 16? I’m not sure, but if not, then only a year or two older. He said that one Christmas they were defending some strategic hill in Italy against the British. Being December it was cold and wet, and the conditions were appalling. The skirmishes were relentless; fierce and frightening, but of all the Allies, he and his comrades were most terrified of the Gurkhas, those legendary Nepalese warriors.
Anyhow, when Christmas Day dawned, a truce was agreed between both sides that resulted in the soldiers playing soccer in no man’s land. I guess the recollection of such bittersweet memories combined with copious amounts of Eiswein was too much and soon tears were running down this gentleman’s face as he related how he and the other German soldiers mixed with the Allies and took photos of their mums, girlfriends and wives out of their wallets to show to each other. Only then, he said in a faltering voice, did he fully understand the futility of war and that the men he was fighting were just like him, regular, decent guys who wanted the same things in life he did: not hatred and violence but love and peace - a happy family - and a job to support them.
The next day, when the fighting began again, they had to kill their friends not their enemies. It did their heads in.
J M Leitch is author of The Zul Enigma, a factual futuristic thriller looking back at a cataclysmic event occurring on 21 December 2012, end of the Mayan calendar.