Text of the homily delivered at the chapel of Saint George, on the Isla del Rey in Menorca, on 11 November 2022. A version of this in Spanish was published in the ‘Diario’ of Menorca on 7 December 2022.
Last year, at the Sunday Remembrance Service, I read from a diary that my grandfather reconstructed recording his journey from Italy to Poland as a prisoner of war after the submarine on which he served in WW2 was depth charged off the coast of Italy, in the Adriatic sea, and sank.
It’s something of a family heirloom and treasure, and given that it was written by my grandfather, our family has always been very touched by it. Even so, I was surprised at how many people were touched by this simple record of the journey of one man among very many whose experiences were far from rare and who certainly had no aspirations for a literary occupation.
I did not know of the existence of this diary until I was well into adulthood. I didn’t know why my grandad would sometimes wake up shouting from a nightmare.
My grandfather watched a significant portion of his shipmates machine gunned to death in the water. Those who survived and reached land became prisoners of war.
They were then marched something like 1400 km across Europe through what became Czechoslovakia to occupied Poland and Germany.
A lot of his account deals with the itinerary, the horrible conditions (stated rather dispassionately) and the lack of food. Rations were scarce, and became scarcer as time progressed, supplemented only by occasional Red Cross parcels and what they could scavenge.
The march started at 6am on 3 March 1945. And at 6am every subsequent day. The weather was mostly horrible. They slept in draughty barns.
After nine weeks there was a rest day, and so he, “took off my clothes for the very first time and bathed by a brook, and after searching I was satisfied I had no lice on my body.”
At one point they were given the task of filling in bomb craters at a railway station. Brutal work, minimal rations, 90% stones, after 4 days could hardly lift the shovel.
Two days later the station was bombed again and so “it was labour in vain.”
A poignant paragraph: “A bad time on the march was when the RAF bombed a bridge leading across the Danube. Our men took shelter when they sounded the alarm, unfortunately under and alongside the bridge. Little did our men know that that the bridge was to be the RAF target. Down came the bombs and our men were blown to pieces. Altogether we lost 30 killed and many wounded.”
Little did the RAF air crew know that they were bombing prisoners of war. That’s part of the problem, isn’t it? Innocent victims.
There’s more, of course. But that’s a taste.
What I’m left wondering is: Why would we ever want to subject people we love to that kind of tribulation?
Is it because we have become increasingly distanced from the immediate effects of armed conflict? It’s all about other people.
But. It’s about other people’s families and loved ones.
Other people’s sons and daughters. Other people’s husbands and wives. Other people’s fathers and mothers. Other people’s grandfathers.
They have to lay their lives on the line because we need people to try to establish or keep peace either through deterrent or through direct action.
Because we can’t resist the temptation of conflict and the violence to which conflict leads.
This is why Remembrance is so important.
It reminds us of the consequences of conflict. It reminds us of the cost of violence. It reminds us that as frightened, violent, courageous, heartbroken human beings, we owe it to those who went before to keep seeking a better way to resolve differences.
My grandfather did not go to serve in a submarine because he wanted to perpetuate a sort of endless war-game, rather like that envisaged by George Orwell in 1984. He wanted, like all those who were drawn decades before him into the conflict of the so-called Great War to end all wars more than 100 years ago, and of the wars since, to establish a better world where people didn’t have to risk seeing their friends machine gunned in the water.
A better world where we spend our collective resources feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, improving the environment, educating our children, rather than vast sums on military technology.
It’s somewhat poignant that in the church calendar on this day we commemorate Martin of Tours, a soldier who gave up his military service to be baptised as a Christian. One day, while he was riding into Amiens, he met a beggar who was almost naked, and he cut his soldier’s cloak in half in order to clothe the man. The following night he had a dream in which he saw Christ himself wrapped in half of a soldier’s cloak and saying, “Martin, a mere catechumen, covered me with his garment.”
He eventually (and reluctantly) became bishop of Tours, but he continued to live as a monk, dwelling in a bare cell and holding no property for himself, even as he cared for the people of his diocese.
On this day, we remember the powers that God bestowed on Martin, but more importantly, we remember how he used them — for the peace of the Church, for the spread of the gospel, for leading the faithful in the way of holiness, and for mercy to the poor.
This is, ultimately, what it means to beats our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks.