It’s amazing, the places where this picture crops up.
Most recently in the dining room of the Rose Hotel in Bunbury. A strange choice one might think. Hardly conducive to the digestion to be chowing down on a Kansas City T-bone while sitting in the path of the charge of the Royal Scots Greys. Those huge white horses with flared nostrils and fiercely bulging eyes, their iron shod hooves threatening to trample you to death. And the equally scary riders, ferocious looking red coated Dragoons, their open mouths screaming a war cry, wielding wicked sabres, ready to hack down anyone in their path.
It’s called Scotland Forever, but to me it’s always been The Charge of the Light Brigade. That’s what my father told me it was and we always believe what our fathers tell us, don’t we?
It was a good T-bone steak, medium rare, and I was thoroughly enjoying it when the picture caught my eye.
“I’m sorry dear?” My wife looked up from her poached salmon fillet.
“Scotland Forever,” I gestured with my fork. “The print on the wall.”
“Oh, I thought you were talking about the referendum.”
Which we had been. The news having come in overnight that the Scots appeared to be the first and only race in history who, given the chance of independence, had peacefully voted to remain united with their erstwhile oppressors. Making an interesting comparison with independence movements in other parts of the world – Eastern Europe being a topical example - where such deliberations were more often accompanied by violence and bloodshed.
And looking at the picture reminded me of something that an old German had said at my father’s funeral, about how the ghosts of past conflicts always come back to haunt us.
He was a farmer, my father, except for the few years in his youth when he served as a squaddie in the East Yorkshire Regiment. Active well into his late seventies, whistling a favourite dog behind a mob of sheep or getting the cows into the milking shed. He seemed indestructible and it had been a shock to receive a telephone call from my brother telling me that he had passed away and of the arrangements for the funeral.
So it was in complete contrast to the heat of a Perth summer that I shivered in the grey November drizzle outside York Crematorium. In addition to the family and the handful of friends he had not managed to outlive, there was a representative from the British Legion, come to convey their respects at the passing of a former comrade, and an elderly German. I didn’t remember my father having any German friends so I wondered what he was doing there, until my brother took me aside.
“Mum invited him. He was a prisoner of war that Dad met just after it ended. They used to be good friends, although that was mostly Christmas and Birthday Cards in recent years. But he seems a nice enough old boy. He came by taxi from Leeds Airport but I’ve said you’ll drive him back. Is that okay?”
What could I say?
The memorial service was brief. My brother said a few words, remembering the father and the farmer and relating some semi-amusing anecdotes about his successes and failures on both counts. The man from the British Legion spoke about his wartime service. Which was quite a surprise really, as Dad never talked about the war, at least not to us boys. So I listened with belated respect as the man outlined his record, which included being among the first ashore at D-Day and then spearheading most of Monty’s battles across northern Europe before being wounded and invalided out in April 1945.
It was still raining when we left the chapel. Mum had elected not to receive his ashes, preferring they be scattered over the crematorium’s garden, and we set off to the nearby Marcia Inn where my brother had booked a room for lunch.
Where there was another print of Scotland Forever!
The old German was standing in front of it, intently studying the detail of the horses and the red uniforms, and I was able to study him more closely. A slender man, of medium height, he had removed the dark blue overcoat he had worn to the crematorium to reveal a neatly pressed charcoal grey suit. His bony hands rested on the silver knob of a straight, polished cane and I recalled that he walked with a slight limp as we had left the chapel. Evidence of advanced age was wrought into the hollow cheeked, trench-traced face above which a sparse stubble of white hair fought a rear-guard action. He turned as I approached and appraised me with a pair of pale blue, impassive eyes.
“The Charge of the Light Brigade.” I said, in answer to what I assumed he intended to ask.
“Well it’s actually called Scotland Forever and it shows the Royal Scots Greys at the charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.”
“Whoever told you zat?” His voice was sharp, but not unfriendly.
“Ach! And of course you vould believe him. But I am sorry to correct you. The painting is, in fact, showing the Royal Scots Greys at Waterloo. It was painted by Lady Butler. But the painting is quite inaccurate. The Scots Greys did not charge at Waterloo. They advanced at a quick walk. It was too dangerous to do otherwise on the already broken ground of ze battlefield.”
I stared back at him in open mouthed surprise. I felt crushed, like a schoolboy whose errors have been excruciatingly exposed and corrected by a sadistic teacher.
The pale blue eyes twinkled and the stern lips curved into a smile of comprehension. “Forgive me, you are William’s younger son, James, are you not? It is so many years since I have seen you zat I had forgotten. History was not your father’s greatest interest. I fear I may have confused him, and he you.”
“I’m afraid I don’t remember you at all. I must have been very young.”
“Indeed you were, still a kleinkind, a toddler as you would say.”
“Did you visit us often, when we were children?”
“Not so often, our lives took quite different paths. And I had not seen your father for many years.” He paused and his eyes took on a wistful hue. “It is very good to be able to say auf wiedersehen to a former comrade in arms.” He saw the quizzical look on my face and continued. “We fought against one another but I never thought of him as an enemy. And he saved my life, in more ways than one.”
“I didn’t know, is it a long story?”
“Not so long. But we have your father’s life to celebrate and you have other guests. We will have some time on the drive to the airport. Now, if you will please excuse me, I should like to say a few words to your mother.”
I nodded and moved aside to let him pass. Then I turned back to the picture. The Battle of Waterloo! And all these years I had thought it represented the Charge of the Light Brigade. I wondered how my father had come to that mistaken impression; but I would have to wait to find out. It was time to circulate and say thank you to the mourners.
The rain had cleared by the time we finished lunch but the short winter daylight was already fading. The traffic was light on the A54 although the evening rush hour would make for slower going around the Leeds Ring Road. But we were in plenty of time for the flight to Berlin. The old German sat in the passenger seat, his blue overcoat buttoned against the cold, despite the warm air blowing from the heating vents.
“I am pleased to say zat your mother is looking very well. Such a sad loss to her, to you all. Will she remain at the farm do you think?”
His English was near perfect with only the occasional hint of Germanic vowels and consonants. I grinned. “They’ll have to carry her out in a box, just like my father. Not that it’s likely anytime soon.”
“And you? You are settled in Australia.”
“My wife is Australian, my children are Australian. It’s been good to me. And I can visit Mum when I need to.”
“That is good, Ja. And …so … you would like me to tell you about how I met your father and why he thought zat picture was of the Charge of the Light Brigade?”
Yes, please. But not …” I thought of my father’s reluctance to talk about his own wartime experiences, “if it is--“
“Too painful? Don’t vorry James, I have long ago learned how to deal viz the demons in my past. I told you that your father saved my life. That was in Normandy, when your father’s war was just beginning but mine had come to an end.” He paused and sat silent for a few moments as if arranging his thoughts.
“You might not think it from the television histories, but D-Day was the easy bit for many Allied soldiers. The real fighting began as they pushed inland where it was brutal, as deadly as anything I had experienced on the Eastern Front. I was taken prisoner when my unit was cut off defending Caen. I would have chosen to fight on and take my chances but our officer ordered us to raise our hands. After disarming us some Tommie’s, commanded by a corporal, marched us towards the rear. We almost never got there. On the way we ran into a squad of Canadians sheltering in a wrecked barn. They were drunk and trigger happy. They took one look at our German uniforms and suddenly there were a dozen rifles pointing at us. I didn’t speak English then but I could tell from their tone that the Canadians were telling the corporal to get him and his men out of the way. Here it comes, I thought. All the way through Russia with hardly a scratch and I’m going to die in a barn in Normandy. But I didn’t. That corporal doggedly stood his ground, defying the Canadians to shoot him. And perhaps they would have except for the appearance of an officer who ordered them to lower their weapons. That corporal vas your father.”
He paused, giving me the chance to digest the information.
“So he did save your life,” I said. “But why did the Canadians want to kill you?”
“Ach, James, it is not always so easy judge men’s actions during a war. The SS had shot some Canadians who were trying to surrender. Perhaps they thought they could even up the score.
“But … were you.” I hesitated, unsure if I should be asking such a question.
“In the SS? No,” said the German quietly. “But by then we were all guilty.”
I gripped the wheel and stared ahead at the road, starting to regret having initiated the conversation.
“You father prevented murder. For that he cannot be faulted. Whether I or any of the men he saved that day deserved to die is a matter for others, maybe for God, to decide. Anyway, on that day, for me, the fighting was over. I was shipped to England and remained in a prison camp in Yorkshire until the war ended. Then I vas allowed day release to work on the local farms. The work was hard, the famers were hard men, but zey treated us fairly. We were not allowed to return home while the Allied governments argued about what was to happen to Germany. Stalin would have happily executed all German prisoners or worked them to death with forced labour. And at the time I might have been happy for him to do so. The news I received from Germany sent me into despair. My entire family and all my friends had been killed. There was literally nothing for me to return to.”
“And it was in Yorkshire that you met my father again?”
“Ya, that is so. Initially we were not allowed to fraternise viz the local people. Of course we got to know the farmers for whom we worked but anything further was forbidden. But after a while the regulations were relaxed and I was invited to a Christmas party. One of the men there looked familiar but it took me some time to remember that he had been the corporal who had stood up to those Canadians. Of course, I had learned to speak English by then and I introduced myself to express my gratitude. It vas the start of our friendship. He was a farmer and I was, by then, a skilled labourer at a time when Britain needed as many willing hands as she could find. So I worked on your family’s farm until my release and continued to do so as a free man. I had nothing to go back to Germany for and your father had offered me the chance of a new life in Britain. I could have stayed, as many Germans did. But life is never so simple. After a time I began to compare my life in Yorkshire with what I heard of conditions in my homeland, the Vaterland as we were not allowed to call it anymore, and I knew I had to go back. Germany had to be rebuilt and who else was there to rebuild it but those of us who, for better or worse, had survived. And as we rebuilt our country so we rebuilt our own shattered lives, although I can tell you zat bricks and mortar can be healed more quickly than broken souls.”
“But you remained friends … with my father?”
“Just so. We visited each other several times in those early years even though travel between Britain and the Continent was not so easy as now. But not …” he shrugged his shoulders, “not so much in recent years. It’s not, you understand, that we grew to be lesser friends. It’s just that our lives moved in different directions. We had less in common.”
“He remained a farmer,” I observed. “But what about you?”
“I became a teacher.”
“Of history? You seem to know a bit about history.”
“Mein Gott, no. Germany does not have a history, it has only a past. Germany did not even exist as a nation before 1871. No, I did not want to have to worry if what I was teaching conformed to the latest government diktats of how the past should be interpreted. I taught mathematics and science. There was safety in the certainty of numbers.”
We were approaching Whitmore and the turn off for the ring road west towards the airport.
“Tell me about the painting,” I said. “How did my father come to be confused about it?”
“Ach yes, ze painting.” And again there was a pause while he gathered his thoughts.
“It is difficult to explain without giving you some idea of how I felt then, about the war and Germany’s part in it.” He stopped and I glanced across at him. He was staring out of the window as if seeking inspiration from the grey skies and brown, muddy fields flashing past on either side.
“You should realise, James, that what seems obvious now, viz the benefit of hindsight, did not seem so obvious at the time, sixty years ago, when I was growing up. Germany was a defeated and a deeply divided nation. Defeated in body and spirit. A carcase being squeezed, as Clemenceau the French Premier intended, until its very bones bled. Divided between rich and poor, and between political extremists, the communists and the nationalists. You vill have read about what ze Great Depression did to the lives of ordinary people in Britain, or even in Australia. But in Germany! Ach, conditions were truly terrible. Inflation wiped out the savings of ordinary Germans and there was hunger and despair anywhere. The only messages of hope that spoke to ordinary working Germans were those of the Communists and the National Socialists – the Nazis. The Communists were well organised, Stalin saw to that, and in 1932 it looked as if the they were going to win the next election. To prevent that Hitler did a deal with the Army to get himself appointed Chancellor. And with his hands on the levers of power, well you know the rest. But at the time there were many who supported him. We saw what was happening in Russia. The great political purges, the Show Trials, the liquidation of the Kulaks, the better off farmers, and the catastrophic famines. These were common knowledge in Germany and many saw the evil that was Communism and fought against it. Many of them joined the Nazi party. I did.”
We had passed through a brief shower but now the last rays of the setting sun emerged through a gap in the grey clouds shrouding the Pennines, momentarily turning the wet road into a sparkling golden river. Then the clouds swallowed the last of the sunlight and I flicked on the headlights.
“Does that shock you, James?” he asked. And then, not waiting for a reply, continued. “It’s hard to explain to people today what it felt like to live in Germany then, in the shadow of Communism. But that’s why, in 1939, when I was old enough, I applied to join the SS Liebstandarte Division, Hitler’s personal bodyguard. I was bitterly disappointed when they turned me down as not being physically perfect enough. But I was determined to serve my Fuhrer so I joined the Army instead. And when the war came I was proud to do my part in defence of the Fatherland. You will question how invading Poland and France contributed to its defence. But we believed Hitler when he told us that it was a necessary preparation for the final showdown with the communists.
“And then, in August 1941, I marched east, confident that we would soon be in Moscow and writing Stalin’s obituary. And surely you must know that in those first few months the peoples of the Ukraine and western Russia greeted us as liberators. They were glad to see the back of the communists and the hated collectivisations that starved millions to death. I was in a front line unit, advancing as fast as my feet and our horses could carry us. And we marched and fought and marched on while the Russians died or ran before us. And behind us? Well things were happening that it was sometimes best not to ask too closely about. But it was us or the communists.
“And so, by October we found ourselves entering the Crimea, the place where it vas said that Iron Crosses grew. But to get there we had to cross the isthmus of Perekop, the narrow land bridge from the mainland. The Russians had turned it into a killing field nicknamed the Tartar Wall. Iron Crosses grew on the Tartar Wall all right. It’s where I won mine. The fighting was so savage, so extreme that, even now, I am amazed that I managed to survive it. But, eventually, the Russians gave way and we were able to move south into the Crimea where the prize was Sevastopol. We were desperate to seize it and the Russians equally desperate to hold onto it. Our only chance was to get there quickly, before the retreating Russians had managed to lock themselves securely inside. But it was already late October and the weather had turned against us. It was very cold and wet and the rain and the mud slowed us down.
“And so, by the end of the month we finally got to the outskirts of Sevastopol, arriving at a place you vill have heard of, ze little port of Balaclava, nestled at the head of a narrow inlet hemmed in by steep hills, almost like a little fjord. My unit was ordered to occupy the heights of a ridge separating two valleys about a mile north of Balaclava. We scrambled up onto the ridge and dug in, readied our weapons and prepared to sit out the night. Just before dusk we spotted a patrol of Russian cavalry scouting along the ridge to our north. Horses were no strangers to us on the Eastern Front, but the sight of a troop of Cossack cavalry trotting along the distant skyline seemed a throwback to an earlier time.
“It must have been close to All Hallows’ Eve, or what you call Halloween, that night in the year when the dead have a final chance to seek vengeance on their living enemies. Of course none of us cared about that. We were only focussed on surviving the freezing night. The sky cleared towards midnight and the temperature plummeted. The stars seemed to blaze in the sky and crystals of frost began to glaze our helmets and the rocks amongst which we were sheltering. Towards dawn even colder air sliding down from the northern heights began to form a thick mist where it met the valley floor. From where we crouched it looked as if the mist was rising out of the ground itself.
“And then we heard the clink and jingling of metal and the snorting of horses. It vas a cavalry patrol approaching, hidden by ze mist. But a gust of the morning breeze thinned it enough so that we caught sight of them. There were no more than a half-troop and they were advancing in line as if preparing to charge. The leader halted them when they were a little over 300 metres away and studied our position through field glasses. They must have known we were there. We could have cut them down with our machine guns, but that would have shown them how few we were, so we held fire. The slope up the ridge to our position was quite gentle, no trouble to horses, but we had the advantage of the cover of the rocks. Then the mist closed over the horsemen and we stared blindly down the slope. We could hear the shouts of the troop leader, or maybe it was their Commissar, exhorting them. We called down, ‘Come on Ivan, what are you waiting for?’
“Then there was blast on a whistle, loud cheering from fifty or so Cossack throats and the thunder of hooves as the horses gathered momentum on the frosty ground. We opened fire, shooting blind into ze mist, hoping that we were hitting them. And then they were upon us. I saw the leading horses tear out of the mist galloping straight towards our position. But what had originally appeared to be no more than a half-troop had greatly increased in number. And now it was not just Cossacks charging at us. In addition to the uniformed regulars there was an even greater number of partisans. Dressed in archaic, tattered uniforms, with odd shaped helmets and wielding old fashioned sabres. Their horses, big fearsome beasts were mostly white. Some had pushed in amongst the ranks of the Cossacks and more were pressing up from the rear. There were too many and they were too close. We shot down dozens but more rode on rolling over our position and heading up the ridge line to the next one. It was hopeless. I knew I was going to die. We were surrounded by a press of kicking beasts and savagely hacking men and it was only a matter of time. A huge partisan in a tattered red jacket charged at me, screaming a war cry in a language I could not understand. I aimed my rifle at his chest, pulled the trigger and swore in frustration as the hammer clicked onto an empty chamber. I grasped it by the barrel and raised it like a club. I parried the first blow but the force of the slashing sabre sent me reeling and before I had time to recover the second cut came slicing towards my head. I ducked but it caught me on the shoulder. I fell and must have smashed my head against a rock because that’s the last thing I remember.
“Those Cossacks and the partisans did their job well. They drove us back from our positions at the same time as a Russian infantry column, reinforced with a few tanks, swept up the northern valley. It was a desperate affair. But those left alive managed to scramble back to safety, dragging the wounded with them. I survived and awoke in a field dressing station with a nasty sabre cut to my shoulder. I had ducked just enough and the blow was a glancing one, but it took several weeks before I was declared fit enough to re-join. By then my regiment had been destroyed in the assaults on Sevastopol and I was sent back to Germany and assigned to a training battalion.
“And after that I thought little more about the action until, one day after the war, I went with your father to Leeds to watch a football game. We had some time before kick-off and decided to pay a visit to the Leeds Museum. And that is where I first saw it. Lady Butler’s painting of the charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo. The white horses, the red coated dragoons, the bearskin topped helmets, the big cavalry sabres. I could almost feel the agony of the sabre slicing into my shoulder and it struck me, like a thunderclap, that it was not partisans that I had seen charging towards me, tearing that pre-dawn mist into shreds, but men like these. And then I began to shiver in horror at the realisation that I what I had seen were these men. Not living, but risen from the dead to fight alongside the living. Men who had once fought the Russians but were now risen to help defend Mother Russia in her mortal struggle against a common enemy. And in that moment my horror turned to absolute despair as I realised just how much the German people had offended against God and the forces of nature. We had earned their hatred and they had summoned the dead of our enemies to help the living to defeat us. All of that I realised as I looked at the painting and recognised in it the British Dragoons that had charged at me on that late October morning just north of Balaclava. Not partisans, but the risen bodies of Dragoons that had fallen on those same positions 87 years before, almost to the day. And of course I was able to go to the library and check. Sure enough I discovered that Dragoons of the Scots Greys had been part of the Heavy Brigade of cavalry that had won a famous victory at the Battle of Balaclava. But British defeats are sometimes more glorious and it is the ill-fated charge of Light Brigade later that same morning that you all remember.
“But I had seen them, those Dragoons and to me, with the scene burned into my memory, they looked exactly as Lady Butler pictured them in their scarlet jackets on big grey horses. And I can still remember the screamed war cry of ‘Scotland Forever’ as the sabre hacked into my shoulder.”
I had glanced across at him several times as he recounted his tale. His face had set into a chilling, pale mask and his eyes appeared to be fixed on a point in the distance; but I knew that he was not seeing the road or the headlights of the cars flicking past. Now he turned to me, his eyes blinking back tears.
“Your father saw me staring at ze painting and I tried to explain to him what I had seen. But he was a practical, rational man and he thought I was being fanciful. Everything he knew about Balaclava he got from Tennyson’s poem which he knew by heart. For him it was always the Light Brigade. But the Hussars and Lancers wore blue at Balaclava and I know what I saw.”
He turned his head again to stare out of the window and I wondered if he could still see the ghosts of those Dragoons, galloping across the Yorkshire country side in the fading light. Then he turned back to me. “But the story does not end there, James,” he continued. “After Stalin died Khrushchev decided to hand ze Crimea to the Ukraine, a state Stalin himself created out of Soviet territory for the purpose of garnering compliant votes at the fledgling United Nations. God knows why Khrushchev did it. There was no strategic or military logic to it. Quite ze opposite, he had just handed the best naval base in the Black Sea to another country. Which was fine as long as they were all bound together in the Soviet Union. But now? The Soviet empire has crumbled and there are a jumble of new republics on Mother Russia’s borders. But the ogre of nationalism only slumbers in the breast of the bear. It won’t take much to wake it. A little agitation from the Ukrainians for closer ties with NATO and the European Union and … maybe the Crimea will once again be a flashpoint between empires. It took the British and French a year to capture Sevastopol. It took our 11th Army six months and when the Russians returned in 1944 it took them almost as long to recapture it. The number of Russian dead from those battles is incalculable. Far too many for Russians to ever think of the Crimea as anything less than sacred soil. And that doesn’t take into consideration the countless Tartars, Germans, British, French, Turks and others who have fallen in that blood soaked peninsula. Maybe some of those dead will have to rise again. But whose side will they be on next time?”
The light was almost gone as we pulled off the ring road and drove past Bramhope village. I could see the lights of the airport terminal off to the left, across the wintry darkening fields and the jets making their final approaches over the brooding mass of the Chevin. The German reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a medal. I recognized it as an Iron Cross. He held it out to me. “Vould you like it? I cannot hand this on to anyone in my family. It’s too painful a symbol. But perhaps you would like to have it. I thought at one time of giving it to your father. But he wanted to forget the war. He wanted us all to live in peace in a new Europe in which the old enmities were buried and forgotten. The only battles worth fighting are now on the football field, he would say. ‘We went one up in 1966 and you’ve pulled back a couple since then. But there’s still the second half to go.’”
He smiled at the recollection. “But it’s not so easy for me. I was, for a time anyway, a loyal Nazi. I believed in Germany’s destiny, in the righteousness of a German victory. Now? Now I know that it was never to be, and for very good reasons. But as the memories fade some of those reasons seem less apparent. You cannot bury the past like you can bury its dead. It always come back to haunt you. Like a half forgotten country that each generation has to rediscover for itself.
“You know James, most people imagine that history flows in the direction of a future that they hope will be better than the past. But that is an illusion, merely part of our desire to impose order and meaning into our lives. We look for a pattern in history to reassure us that good will eventually triumph over evil. But will it? There were times when I really believed that what happened during the war could never happen again. But now I’m not so sure. It’s not just in the Russian bear where nationalism is stirring. I see chauvinism and xenophobia re-appearing in many places. It’s a mistake to think that history has the power to make us better men. We make our own history, for good or evil.” He paused and stared at the Iron Cross in his hand. “And this medal reminds me of that sorry fact, that when we let it, evil will triumph over good.”
I pulled into the approach lane for the departure terminal and stopped in a waiting bay. The rain had started to fall again. I knew that I ought to say something, if only to acknowledge that I had been listening, but the enigmatic complexion and profound emotion of the old man’s story had left me struggling for comprehension and for words to adequately express my reaction. Then I felt a reassuring hand on my arm.
“Thank you for listening to the ramblings of an old man. And thank you for the lift, I hope I have not bored you.”
“Not at all, I’m very glad you were able to come to the funeral.” My face flushed as I mouthed the phlegmatic and totally inadequate rejoinder. To cover my embarrassment I walked around to open his door and to help him out. He swung his legs around, accepted the help of my arm as he stood up and stretched to ease the stiffness.
“It vas no trouble. He was a good man, your father. He saw the best in everybody, even when it was not always deserved. I can find my way from here, there is no need to wait.”
“Will you be okay?”
“Yes, thank you. The flight to Berlin is quite short and my daughter will meet me at the airport.”
He held out his hand, the Iron Cross was in the palm with the red, white and black ribbon looped over the fingers.
“Please take it James and think of an old soldier from time to time.”
He pressed the medal into my hand and then shook it vigorously. “Ouch!” He grimaced and grabbed his shoulder with the other hand, rubbing at the soreness.
“Old war wound.” The grimace melted into a smile. “Scotland Forever! You von’t forget, now, vill you?”