Each year, thousands of Canadians gather at cenotaphs on November 11th – Remembrance Day – to reflect on the futility of war, and to honour those who have paid a heavy price for their service. I have many personal reasons for standing silently at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month; the anniversary of guns falling silent in 1918, ending what had been optimistically dubbed “The War to End all Wars”. But from a lifetime of Remembrance Day memories the one that still stands out is observing the day in Germany in 1989.
Naval students from the Canadian Forces Command and Staff College were visiting the naval base at Kiel that November. It had already been a momentous week as we had experienced the opening of the “Iron Curtain” at the East German border just two days earlier. The 11th was scheduled for a visit to the memorial at Laboe outside Kiel. Originally built to honour German naval dead, it was re-dedicated in the post-Nazi era to sailors of all nationalities. Later, some of us made a professional pilgrimage to the submarine (U-boat) memorial at Möltenort, just 10 minutes drive away. It’s a sombre wall of 115 bronze plaques displaying the names of German submariners who died in both World Wars – thirty thousand in the Second, when the casualty rate was a staggering 70-80%. And submarining is a young man’s game, so most would have been under 30.
Three of us stood together at that wall, reflecting on the enormity of thirty thousand names. Me, a Canadian submarine officer whose father had served in Royal Air Force bombers during the Second World War. Ray, a fellow Canadian naval officer whose father had commanded a frigate which sank a German submarine. Lutz, a German naval officer and classmate at the College as part of a NATO exchange program, whose parents would have been “the enemy” to ours forty-five years earlier.
As Ray ran his finger over the names of the men his father had to kill in 1945; as I stood near where my father had dropped bombs in 1939, appreciating as only a submariner can how those young U-boat crews died; as Lutz stood with us as our friend; there were no words. Only moist eyes, a lump in the throat, and the same thought – Never again!
For those who would better understand life and death during the long Battle of the Atlantic I’d recommend two unsentimental films that are mercifully free of Hollywood’s heroic hype. Most submariners will agree that Germany’s “Das Boot” (“The Boat”) portrays the best and worst of life in an operational diesel-electric submarine, no matter what the nationality. Similarly, Britain’s “The Cruel Sea” is a realistic portrayal of war in frigates like Ray’s Dad commanded, and corvettes like HMCS Sackville, which is now Canada’s Naval Memorial in Halifax. What is particularly noteworthy in both films is that they reflect how little ideology means to professionals who share the common culture of naval life, regardless of language and uniform.
There are no enemies on Remembrance Day. It’s no time for dwelling on the ideologies of older men – and it usually is men, often men who have never heard a shot fired in anger – who send young people into unneccessary war. It’s a time to salute those who do the job that ‘s required of them to the best of their ability, no different from those they must fight who simply speak another language and wear a different uniform ( and sometimes nowadays no uniform at all).
For those who persist in advocating force of arms for anything but self-defence I can only offer this thought from soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon:
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know / The hell where youth and laughter go.
Lest we forget.