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"Only the Dead Have Seen the end of War"
on 28 July 2009
With the recent sad passing of Harry Patch "The last Tommy", who was the last man alive to have fought in the trenches of the Great War, I feel saddened that the last living link with my grandfathers generation has been lost. He will be buried in the village of Monkton Combe a short drive away from where I live, making it doubly poignant. Harry didn't speak about the war until he was a hundred years old, such was the mark it left on him. In his last years he was outspoken against war and its waste. That war to end all wars almost annihilated a generation and left mental scars on the survivors that would never heal.
There were two things that I did with my children out of respect for that generation. I took them all to see the Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium with the names of the dead engraved on it. On his first trip out of the country since the war this was the first place Harry Patch visited. If you have not done this, then do it. The second thing I did for my son was to read him Erich Maria Remarque's story "All Quiet on the Western Front". It was a bit too violent for my daughters who are of a more delicate disposition. My son often reminds me that he still has the mental scars from the book. He still asks what sort of father would do that to his son. But he remembers it vividly. I have read it three times now and it is a book that is as powerful today as when it was first published in book form in 1929 when it caused a sensation. It is the daddy of all the anti war books.
We see the war through the eyes of an innocent and naive young soldier Paul Baumer who is fresh from school. After some initial training he is sent to the front where he witnesses the realities of trench warfare. Life becomes very cheap indeed, but Paul adapts and learns how to survive. He sees friends killed and he kills himself, and in so doing becomes dehumanized. The physical and psychological effects of the war on these men are shown graphically. The characters from the novel seem so real. The old veteran Katczinsky who takes the young lads under his wing. Himmelstoss the ex postman turned training corporal who gives the recruits such a hard time in training. A tyrant who is later exposed on the front as a frightened coward. War does that to men. There is no hiding place and the inner soul is exposed. The ending of the story is a blissful release and so very sad.
The words "All Quiet on the Western Front" have so embedded themselves in the national psche that they have become common slang for not much is happening. Remarque was well qualified to write the book as he served as a German soldier in the trenches. The book and its anti war message was hated by Hitler who burnt most copies. Remarque was forced to leave his own country. Sadly his message has been lost on the warmongers. One only has to look at the long list of conflicts since the war. "Only the dead have seen the end of war". Harry Patch and his generation will see no more wars. May they rest in peace. If you do nothing else visit the Menin gate or read this book. Essential reading.