Sunday, 15 May 2011

moving frontiers and the German fort

yesterday we visited Fort Mutzig, a fort built by the Germans (it was in Germany at the time) mostly in the 1890s, against the French.  It was used in battle precisely once, early in the First World War, and drove the French to retreat, at the cost of some considerable life.  It contains much state-of-the-art equipment (for the time) including for example a bread oven designed to feed some hundreds daily (the ration for soldiers at that time was 750 grams of bread a day, and not much else, there is forensic evidence that they were hungry much of the time).  The bread oven was made in Hamburg and designed to be used on board ship, so it could bake efficiently and withstand vibration at the same time.  All the equipment was underground, which was where the soldiers lived.  There are proper crapper toilets, which most of the soldiers would not have seen before, much less had in their homes in the Rhineland villages.  Anyway, the fort is enormous, unobtrusive above ground, cost many millions in the money of that time, and was almost not used at all.  Because it was in the wrong place.  Just like the Maginot Line was, not too far away and also in this region of France.  All in all it was an interesting visit and I learned from it in more than one way.  In particular, while the tour group I was with was trailing along an underground tunnel, I thought I heard English being spoken in another group. Tourism in this region is conducted in French and German.  British people do not come here (they would like it if they did) and so it is rare to hear English spoken.  Our tour guide spoke only French to us, though she could speak German and we heard her do so.  Anyway, I was right in thinking I had heard English spoken.  Another member of the group asked about it too, and was told there was a small group of Australians touring at the same time, family members or descendants of one or more Australians who had volunteered during the First World War and had served in Europe, possibly in this very region, nobody could be sure.  The tour guide then remarked that Australians and British people had been noted at that time and later for their willingness, and indeed enthusiasm, for volunteering to go to war, something which was unthinkable (she said) for most French and Germans, certainly from this region, and she mentioned Belgium too in this context.  I had to speak up at this point.  I have never been tempted to volunteer to go to war, though I entirely understand the motivation of those who do, and I consider myself privileged not to have been obliged to fight or otherwise contribute to a war effort for my country.  It has given me the luxury to pursue other interests.

That remark by the tour guide, who did not know I was English until I spoke up, struck a chord which had not been struck in me before.  Why would British people volunteer to fight when French and Germans did not want to?  The guide said something along the lines of "That war did not affect the British to begin with, so why did they want to get involved?"  Family members of mine, cousins of my grandfather on my mother's side, had indeed volunteered in the First World War, and not all of them came back - they were teenage boys when they volunteered - and they thought they were fighting for their country, even though their country had not been invaded, and did not have land frontiers to defend as France, Germany and Belgium did.  I said that young British men volunteered in that war because they wanted to save England (they would have put it that way) from the threat of war and conquest elsewhere in Europe.  This was not understood by the other members of the group  They appeared to think that fighting in a war was something you were forced to do and which always had bad consequences.

I do not discuss the merits of the First World War here, or indeed its causes, there have been and will be historians to do that, for the benefit of all of us.  That was one war.  There have been others since, including in Europe since 1945 (will no-one remember the siege of Sarajevo?), and there will be British volunteers - remember the Falklands?  There is an outlook in British, maybe I mean English, minds that says that where our people, whatever that means, are threatened, we must fight, or we will all be threatened.  French and German people do not think this way.  Discuss.


Sauti Ndogo said...

We fought and we were not defeated. We draw the lesson that if you fight, you avoid defeat (or even occupation). Both France and Germany were defeated and occupied more than once. They don't draw the same lesson.

Anonymous said...

I remember my father speaking sadly of his older brother, who volunteered with great enthusiasm in the early days of the Second World War. He was killed only a few months later, in January 1940, when a German submarine sank HMS Exmouth. I suspect that he, and the other village teenagers who signed up, were - at least in part - looking for excitement and the chance to travel, given their relatively limited prospects for employment and education. (My grandfather had volunteered for the navy in WW1, and returned after seeing action in the Gallipoli Campaign). Patriotism was probably only one of several motivations.