With the south wind blowing, rain splattering against windows and the sea a dirty chocolate colour, I rummaged in the cottage bookcase for something to read. I selected “The Road Back” by Erich Maria Remarque, “Journey’s End” by Sheriff and Bartlett, and “The Last Enemy” by Richard Hillary. The books were old, had the strong coastal musty smell and were full of borer, but what a message they have for humanity.
Remarque writes about the German troops returning home from the 1914-1918 War, after years of gas, mud and blood in the trenches. Men limped into villages, some blind, some legless and others with their faces shot away. They wanted an end of war, an end of hatred, an end of murder. They hankered to be men again, not war machines. They said, “Never again must it be allowed to happen: this was the war to end wars.”
“Journey’s End” tells the story of pre-1914 England and then the war in the trenches from the British side. It is a poignant novel of valiant young men struggling hard to remain human in the misery of trench warfare where poisonous gas drifted across the shell-pocked landscape and there was the ever present sickly smell of death. The capture of a few hundred metres of desolate country often cost the lives of thousands of men. Like the Germans, the British returned home determined that this would not happen again. But a mere twenty-one years later both nations were locked once more in a life and death struggle.
Richard Hillary’s “The Last Enemy” is about his experiences in the Royal Air Force in the 1939-1945 War. He was one of the young men who took to the skies in a Spitfire to keep the German aerial armadas at bay. It is a book of frightening honesty. Hillary was shot down and parachuted, badly burned into the Channel. He endured months of agony with plastic surgery on his face and hands. He was told he would never fly again but he did, and this time he tragically did not return.
In each of the books there are descriptions of nature. Skylarks singing, while soldiers shot desperately at one another with rifle and cannon. Red poppies growing in shellholes. Trees shattered and split by pieces of shrapnel, bursting into green leaf as spring approached. Flocks of geese winging their way along ancient flyways. The first call of the cuckoo, the long whistle of the curlew, and the persistent hoot of an owl in the night.
All these were part of a rhythm of the world which continued irrespective of what man was doing to man. But some of the combatants saw these natural occurrences, marvelled, commented and recorded them. It is as though they realised that man has got out of harmony with nature; he has been pulled away from the natural rhythms to seek false solutions which lead to hatred, bitterness and war.
Perhaps the growing interest in conservation and the desire to protect and look after wild areas is a manifestation of man’s deep need to ally himself with the natural rhythms of our planet. Although there may be more “kicks than ha’pence” for those engaged in conservation work, at least they can rest in the sure knowledge they are on the right path.