It was at 11am Sunday Nov.11th 100 years ago that the bells rang out in every cathedral and church all over Ireland, Britain and Western Europe to celebrate the end of the First World War. This was the agreed moment with the guns would be silenced, the bomb shelling halted and when the carnage and human savagery that had lasted for 4 long years would finally be stopped. This was one of the truly great days for humankind in the 20th Century and it is only right that we should remember that day of peace and all those who suffered and died in our Mass today. In front of the altar we have a rough white cross with poppys reminiscent of the thousands of graves in thousands of graveyards scattered throughout France and Belgium.
A child walked into the living room to find her father and mother screaming at each other.
She turned around and left them at it and said to her brother, ‘Now I know how wars start.’ At the end of the Great War 80m had died directly and 100m indirectly and it all began as a family row where all the main protagonists were inter-related by marriage. The historians still argue about what were the precise reasons. A large contributing factor was German greed and desire for world domination. By the time the unification of Germany had taken place in 1871 they had missed the boat in acquiring colonies throughout the world, unlike their neighbors, France, Spain, Belgium the Netherlands and of course Great Britain who ruled the seas with their navy and had control of much of the new world. With all the new worlds having being conquered Germany turned to expansion in Europe and set their sights on invading France but to do so they had to go through Belgium. Great Britain was obliged by treaty to protect Belgium as its ally and so when Germany mobilized, Britain declared war and Belgium became the battlefield of Europe.
Here in Ireland at the time we were in the throes of economic hardship under British Rule. It looked like a good opportunity to regain our independence and this gave rise to the 1916 Rising. It also seemed to many, like John Redmond, that if Ireland sent soldiers to help fight for England they would be more sympathetic towards giving us our freedom. In the end 210,000 Irish joined up, many for economic reasons, others because they wanted adventure, but very few with any real understanding of what the war was about and why they were fighting in the first place. Set in context the number of Irish killed, 36,000 was roughly twice the present the population of Wexford town with 800 casualties being from this county. Many of us here will have had relatives who fought in the War and whom we would like to remember this morning. As a youngster in Wexford I remember several veterans some with a leg missing and many who were behaving quite strangely as a result of what was then known as shell shock. At that time there was no understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and these where people who endured a living hell where the least noise would be enough to make them dive under their beds thinking they were still under attack.
Relationships for these unfortunate was well nigh impossible and it was their spouses and families who continued to suffer from their outbursts and violence for the rest of their lives.
In reality no soldier ever returns from war. Even if he survives he returns a different person after the horrors he has witnessed. Usually they become desensitized to human suffering and so can inflict terrible hardship on others and have no sense of the pain they are causing.
In a way when the war ended the hardship was only beginning. The wounded damaged and afflicted still had so much to come to terms with. The wealth accrued over centuries had been wasted. Vast parts of countries had been reduced to rubble, 4000 villages in France alone had been destroyed as had so many cities and towns been leveled to the ground.
It was later that the real effects of the war would be seen in terms of the evil that it spawned with the greatest despot of all being Joseph Stallin. The rise of Communism can be directly related to the Great War where more than 50m died during the Stallinist era alone. It also spawned the despot Adolf Hitler who twenty-one years later would immerse the world yet again in the horror of an even worse war and the annihiliation of the Jewish Race. The large empires that had risen up against each other remained as vicious as mad dogs after the armistice just as before and it was their cruelty and injustice towards the defeated German people that opened the door for the rise of Hitler. It was because they needed a father figure to stand up for them against the cruelty and starvation that was being inflicted by their victors that they were so willing to adopt him as their Fuher.
Having being involved in Family Tree work for over 30 years I have seen so many unresolved issues that go back to the Great War. Particularly unresolved grief and how it gets passed down. Parents who received a telegram to say a son had died in action did not have a body and so never grieved. This left the legacy of a black hole for subsequent generations. Some years ago a young widow came, she had lost her husband after being less than a year married. He had gone in for a simple operation in the month of October and died on the table. At some point she mentioned that his uncle John whom he was named after had also died during a simple operation also in the month of October. This made me suspicious and I asked if there was another John earlier. She then remembered hearing that John’s grandmother had a son, also named John who had been killed in the month of October on the battlefield during WW1. ‘No wonder,’ she said that ‘my John was always sad and never well.’ Unfortunately it was a legacy of unresolved grief that cost him his life.
Finally a friend of mine had serious anger problems all through his life until he made a connection with his grandfather whom he was named after. This man survived the war but had serious anger issues that he brought home with him and unleashed on his family. He died with his anger unreconciled but still haunted by a memory from his wartime days. While digging a trench a young German soldier came down on him and stuck a bayonet into his ribs. He was badly wounded but he managed to knock off the soldier’s helmet and beat him to death with his spade. The memory of that young man’s once beautiful but battered face remained with him for life like an icon of the stupidity of war. He used to say that soldier didn’t know me or I him, yet here we were forced to kill each other in the most gruesome manner. His anger was my friend’s legacy. When he died a troubled soul his anger wasn’t buried with him.
Such is the horror of war. As Martin Luther King once said: ‘War is a very blunt instrument to broker peace.’ The reality is that whenever you or I allow ourselves to get embroiled in conflict, with family, relations, friends or community we are drawing on that very same dark energy that brokered WW1, WW2 and every other war we can think of. Back there in 1914 the people of Europe literally jumped into war and its outbreak was greeted with jubilation on the streets of Paris, Vienna and Berlin. It was expected to be over by Christmas. Yet looking back, what unspeakable horror and waste lay ahead even to this present day. Similarly in our own lives we might do well to take the long-term view in relation to all our conflicts and realize what a legacy of suffering we leave for future generations should we not work towards our own armistice days.