Reconciliation: the struggle at the end of conflict?

As we prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day in November, Joan van Emden reflects on reconciliation and war.

Harry Patch meets Charles Kuentz. Photo: Joan van Emden.

It’s easy to assume that reconciliation happens only at the end of conflict, but of course there are moments, even in the midst of war, when by the mercy of God there is a space for compassion and peace. We have all heard of the Christmas Truce in 1914; there was a more limited truce again in 1915 and, at times during the worst of the conflict, soldiers who respected one another would pause for a short while. An unidentified soldier reported: “We shouted to the Germans to come and fetch their wounded…we promised not to shoot, and a man who wore the iron cross advanced to assist a wounded man. Another followed and, amidst our cheers, they carried him off. Before going, the first man saluted and said, ‘Thank you, gentlemen, I thank you very much. Good day.’ The incident quite upset me for a time, and I wished we might all be friends again.”

More commonly, perhaps, reconciliation came with approaching death: a young soldier passed a large shell hole and saw two decomposing bodies lying side by side, one a British soldier, the other a German. “They lay hand in hand, as though reconciled in mutual agony and in the peace of death.”

At the end of the war, the victorious soldiers marched into Germany and the two nations came face to face. A private in the Scots Guards wrote: “I had serious misgivings before entering Germany. My comrades vowed such vengeance on the people that I anticipated something worse than war…no treatment was going to be bad enough and cruel enough. What was my surprise to find, after two or three days in Germany, all our roaring lions converted into sucking doves. The army, without any prompting, took up an unexpected attitude of friendliness…”

Mrs Simpson visits her son’s grave in France.

Reconciliation came sometimes between the families of opposing troops. A German, Egbert Wagner, met a wounded British soldier, Jack Brewster, pulled him into a shell hole, bandaged him and, as he wrote to the distraught British man’s parents: “Acting on the command of our Lord Jesus, ‘Love your enemies,’ I provided him with bread and wine and had a lot of conversation with him.” He was able to report Jack’s convalescence. In 1918, Jack’s parents helped Egbert’s brother, then a POW in British hands. A bond of friendship was firmly established between the families.

The Armistice brought great rejoicing, but there remained a most difficult area of reconciliation: between the living and the dead. A boy whose father had been killed remembered:

“The buttons of my father’s regiment were black with a bugle, and Mum used to write to the regimental headquarters and get stacks of these buttons because all her dresses were covered in the black buttons, on the cuffs, down the front. She never forgot my father.”

The scars of war could indeed last a lifetime. Lily Baron, born in 1912, remembered her father and his last leave at home, and when she visited his grave in France in 2010, aged almost 98, she left a card on which she had written: “Thank you for five years of real happiness. I’ve missed you all my life.”

And what of the soldiers themselves? Some felt that they had gained by their experiences, however terrible, and were able to move on in their lives, but others found it difficult to be reconciled with their past. One veteran described only towards the end of his long life the vision that had haunted him since the day of the Armistice:

“I could not put my head up because I was under fire but above me, at eye level, walking past were hundreds and hundreds of boots and puttees…They went on and on for hours, and I realised that it was the dead all walking away and leaving me behind. I felt worried and frightened that they were leaving me by myself, that I had been left behind. They were marching away into the distance where I would never follow.”

The last veteran of the war, Harry Patch, who died in 2009 aged 111, spent much time towards the end of his life talking about the need for reconciliation. In 2004, he visited the battlefields and met the last surviving German veteran, Charles Kuentz:

“Charles was conscripted just like myself and fought for the Kaiser as I had fought for the King, relations, of course, cousins, so it was a family affair. It shows you how stupid war is.” The two men, through an interpreter, spoke and exchanged presents and shook hands. In Ypres that evening, they sat side by side for the nightly ceremony of commemoration at the Menin Gate; Harry commented:

“I felt sorry for what Charles had to go through; no one deserved to go through that war.” A true reconciliation.

I have prepared two services for the commemoration of the Armistice, using many words of Great War veterans, like those in this article, quoted from books by my son, the military historian Richard van Emden. These services, Aftermath and Reconciliation, are available here.

Joan van Emden is a Licensed Lay Preacher at Christ Church, Reading.

More resources for commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World War here.