Issue 208
May/June 2019


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Jun 26, 2019

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Peace in our time? Or not.....

Maxwell Macleod re-reads a letter from his distinguished father, penned in the trenches during the apocolyptic Battle of Ypres. A salutary reminder for these times, he suggests.

THE NEXT FEW weeks will see the election for the European Parliament, the latest episode in the long running farce whose only positive is that it has brought about the collapse of the two party system in Britain.

But should we care?

It may seem a bit of a cliché to pronounce that you are against war, but I have recently been somewhat traumatised, I kid you not, to read a letter from my late father which he wrote when he was sitting in a dugout in the middle of the third battle of Ypres, a battle that saw twenty five thousand Germans and seventeen thousand allied soldiers killed.

On the first day.

It was the 22nd of August, 1917 and my father was sitting in a dugout that was twelve feet long by six feet wide, doing his best to administer a group of four hundred men who he sent out against a rain storm of hot bullets. He sent out four hundred, eighty came back. Fifteen out of the twenty officers in the battalion were killed. He was aged 22.

Three minutes before he sent the men out they cut off the telephone into that dugout and for the next six hours he had to send out all his messages by carrier pigeon. He was unable to send out messengers as the Germans had a machine gun trained on the door of his office and after he had sent the first two men to their deaths he decided to rely in the pigeons.

Shortly after the start two men crashed into his dug out, followed a few minutes later by five more. He sent out a pigeon with a message saying he needed a doctor, who didn't arrive until all seven had died. There was two inches of water on the floor.

What made the day a bit tricky was that his father, my grandfather, was one of the chief recruiting officers for Glasgow at the time, so he was simply processing these young kids, some as young as seventeen, off the trains his father had enticed them to board and into that red hot rain.

When he returned home he didn't criticise his father, never said a thing, for thirteen years until after his father had died. Not long afterwards he became a parish minister in the Glasgow parish of Govan and was frequently hospitalised for mental stress.

Eventually, one Sunday morning when he was preaching in Govan it all became too much and in a nightmarish gesture he ripped the medals he had won in the war, including the MC he had won for his bad day in the battle of Ypres, off his chest and hurled them at the congregation.

My father spent the rest of his life as a pacifist.

So should we bother about the European elections? Should we care about politics? Oh yes. Mankind's propensity for violence is almost limitless and the one thing that can be said for the notoriously corrupt European Union is that at least it has helped provide the longest period of peace between the European nations in many hundreds of years.

I don't think my father ever truly got over that day in August 1917. He signed off his letter "All this to give you some idea of what a joyful morning you can have if you look for it."

But his bluff doesn't convince me. I myself have seen war in Northern Ireland, the Philippines and the Middle East and although in my own case I have seen little more than a few rotting corpses – which hardly compares with the horrors my father witnessed – it has at least sensitised me to the horror of war and I can scarcely imagine what it did for him.

So before you turn on the television or go off to play a bit of tennis, consider the stakes in that election. Politics is often a dirty game, usually played by ugly people, but it matters, so vote – and vote well.


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