Today in France it’s the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. As a British-Australian, it’s a poignant time to be here.
In the lead up to Remembrance Day today, I’ve been listening to Richard Fidler’s series of Armistice “Conversations” on ABC radio. He tells the story of Australian troop experiences in the north of France through a series of interviews with relatives and local French people, and through reading excerpts from soldier’s writings. The diaries are particularly touching. So understated in their depiction of courageous and selfless action. 53 000 Australians died in France in WW1.
But Australia isn’t part of the war story in Alsace. Here, theirs is a different tale. It’s a complicated and painful history. Alsace was occupied by Germany for most of the war. Overnight, school children were taught their lessons in German not French. Alsacien men were forced to fight for the Germans against their own French countrymen. I can only imagine the complicated emotional legacy.
On our drive to school each morning, we drive past a cemetery with hundreds of little white crosses. It only dawned on me yesterday, as I saw uniformed “pompier” (fire fighters – but they have a broader community role here) making preparations for today, that these crosses were for those who’d fallen in war. The pompiers were preparing for the arrival of an eternal flame that was to be brought by foot from the neighbouring town to its final resting place here in Moosch. I realised what it was that I had encountered earlier that day, when I had had to manoeuvre around four pompier jogging along the mountain road flanked by flashing lights of the companion car.
Later on that day, I sat in the dining room of a lovely German family whose son is in the same class as Silas. We chatted together in French as we watched our children playing in the garden. Beyond the backyard fence, in the distance, we could see the famous Black Forest of Germany just over the border. Our conversation was that of parents the world over. Concern for our children, hope for their future. French, German and English mixed as we talked to our children and to each other.
Such an ordinary scene.
I sat there, watching our two boys playing at being chevaliers in the backyard, trying to make sense of this contradiction of grand geopolitical affairs and lived reality. It might be state leaders who start and end wars, I thought. But sitting in that living room, I felt how our common humanness transcends all this and how in sharing our lived experience, true peace between nations is found.