Reflection for Remembrance Day
From Brother Ivo:
Today we observe our festival of Remembrance.
Our solemn national and civic services will take place with dignity: our military will process with precision and our religious leaders will deliver their annual addresses, carefully composed so that no one may accuse them of jingoism or triviality. The annual spat over the legitimacy of the red or white poppy has surfaced, and the inevitable bout of student shallowness have been duly played out.
November 11th is the day of the 1918 Armistice, but it is also the Feast Day of St Martin of Tours, a soldier saint, and this is our starting point today. An Eastern European, he is best known for taking pity on a beggar and dividing his own cloak to give warmth. Later, in a dream, Christ appeared to him wearing the other half.
This story bequeathes to us two interesting etymologies.
St Martin was a close follower of the much underestimated Hilary of Poitiers, who was the principal advocate of Trinitarian doctrine at the Council of Nicæa. This association brought Martin to the Poitiers area and led to him becoming Bishop of the adjacent city of Tours where a large monastery was built. This was later to receive England's foremost scholar, Alcuin of York, Charlemagne's librarian.
St Martin's half-cloak became a holy relic and the subject of veneration by pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compostella. The monk charged with responsibility for keeping the relic was known as the cappelani (cloak keeper). When moved, the relic was housed in a small temporary shelter, the cappela (little cloak). From these words we derive our terms 'Chaplain' and 'Chapel'.
Martin became the patron saint of infantrymen, and many in France saw significance in the fact that the Armistice was signed on his feast day at the end of the Great War.
Brother Ivo has been spending time in the French countryside of Hilary and Martin, where his evenings have been spent reading a fascinating account of what happened in the locality after the Normandy landings in 1944.
Operations Bulbasket and Houndsworth were mounted by small units of the SAS deep inside enemy territory. They were charged with liaison with the growing Maquis, but especially tasked to slow the arrival of the feared and powerful armoured division Das Reich, which had been based in Toulouse in case the allies invaded from the South. It was fanatical and of greater size and quality than the average German division. Keeping it out of Normandy until after the invasion had established was a major priority. In the event, its normal journey time of three days was delayed to 17, which was critical, but came at a cost.
Bridges and railway lines were disrupted, and hit-and-run attacks impeded their progress. In retribution for attacks by the local Maquis, the entire village of Oradour-sur-Glane was destroyed. The remains of the village are exactly as they were: some find it even more chilling to visit than Auschwitz. The doctor's car rusts in the street; lines of machine-gun bullets are discernible across the altar and confessional where the women and children were murdered. A baby's pram stands before the altar.
Oradour-sur-Glane is a place to sense the tragedy and cruelty of war.
The SAS similarly suffered when 32 of its Bulbasket soldiers were captured. Their story is told in the very readable book by Paul McCue.
Hitler had issued a decree that all captured commandos were to be summarily executed, and any officer who failed or even questioned the order was to be similarly punished. The capture of the commandos presented a real moral dilemma for the local German commanders. Several had real distaste for the order: they were regular army officers, and for days there was discussion and attempts to pass the buck. They considered whether their captives could be regarded as ordinary prisoners of war, but their area of command had no front line. They tried to avoid responsibility by treating them as airmen to be passed to the Luftwaffe, but they were refused. A hypothetical case was offered to a military judge whose opinion confirmed no legal loophole.
In 1947, the German officers commanding the unit which murdered the SAS - General , Colonel Koestlin and Captain Schoenig - were tried by a British military court. General Gallenkamp was sentenced to death, but hanging was commuted to life imprisonment. Colonel Koestlin was sentenced to life in prisonment, and Captain Schoenig to five years. All were released in the 1950s.
For the cold-blooded execution of 32 captives, a harsher generation deemed less than 15 years to be proportionate. We might reflect on these sentences as we consider the the punishment awaiting Commando Sergeant 'A', who has been convicted of shooting a wounded Afghan insurgent.
The German officers concerned had time and took advice as they weighed their options. They knew the illegality of what they were doing. The executions were carried out secretly in a remote woodland miles from the Army HQ, and the bodies were buried in unmarked mass graves. A US airman who was captured with them and easily exempted from the order was executed so that no witness lived. The bodies of three wounded troopers killed by lethal injection in their hospital beds have never been discovered.
The officer who organised the execution had been involved in planning the capture. He was killed during the war and so his culpability was never formally considered. Strikingly, and uniquely, the military records do not show that he made representation against, or that he sought to avoid his responsibilities even though the senior officers were clearly discomfited before they sinned.
Oberleutnant Vogt probably never expected to find himself embroiled in such a tragedy when he was posted to the Bicycle Reconnaissance Corps. Nevertheless, he seems to have busied himself locating the remote execution site, organising the execution detail, announcing the sentence giving the order to fire, and burying the bodies.
Perhaps he was aided by his familiarity with funeral liturgy: in civilian life, he was a Protestant clergyman from Tübingen.
Having read the Bulbasket history, Brother Ivo's mind went back many years to when he first learned French and came to love its countryside. At 14 he spent time with a family in Normandy where he was taken to a woodland where, on 24th August 1943, a local Maquis group was attacked, captured and killed. On the memorial stone a strange name jumped out at him. It was German.
For years, the mystery puzzled. Brother Ivo speculated that perhaps this unknown soldier was an Alsation conscript. How else could he have been accepted by the French partisans?
Fortified by a single malt, Brother Ivo cranked up his linguistic recollections and has spent recent days trawling the French sector of the internet to resolve this puzzle, and he has been rewarded with a name.
In 1943, at the height of Nazi power in Western Europe, Rudolph Pfandhaur deserted that army, taking his uniform and weapon with him. He was Austrian. The French do not record or celebrate him much, yet surely this deserter was remarkable for his courage, as were they who welcomed him into the ranks of those combating tyranny. It is impossible for a Christian to reflect on this without calling to mind Ananias, who was called upon to put aside his fears and reservations to welcome Saul of Tarsus.
As we consider the obedience to secular orders of Oberleutnant Vogt, we should not be despondent or overly condemning. We have not been there, any more than those lining up to condemn Sergeant A can understand how he came to compromise his own integrity and that of his comrades in arms.
A feast day is a time to celebrate, however, and so we should. We should celebrate that for every Vogt there is a Pfandhaur - even amongst our enemies. For every persecuting Saul there is a potential Paul. As we remember our military this day, we should give thanks that so many do not succumb to the temptation to abuse the power which their armaments give them. What is amazing in this fallen world is not that a few fail to live up to the best of standards, but rather most soldiers do.
On this Remembrance Day, let us mourn and repent. Just as Good Friday gives way to the hope of Easter Sunday, let us remember and celebrate the integrity and valour of our armed forces, and give thanks that with St Martin every sinner can hope for redemption thanks to that strange and inexplicable initiative of Christ that we call grace.
Brother Ivo is the Patron Saint of lawyers