When you are standing at your hero’s grave,
Or near some homeless village where he died,
Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride,
The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.
Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;
And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.
But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find
The mothers of the men who killed your son.
Siegfried Sassoon November 1918
This year’s Remembrance Day has attracted particular attention because of the symmetry of the date – 11.11.11. It marks the 93rd anniversary of the end of the First World War and dates back to the armistice at the end of that war marking the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
One of the things that moves me about Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Reconciliation” is quite simply its date. Written in November 1918, presumably to mark the armistice, it recognises the difficulty of achieving genuine reconciliation when events are near and feelings still raw, yet it still asks the reader to forgive. The poem courageously articulates what may have been unpalatable truths – that the German soldiers too were “loyal and brave”, that just because someone is your hero does not make them the only hero, that men on both sides, “fought like brutes” ( and that even heroes are forced into atrocity in war), and that our jingoistic hatred is “blind.” Sassoon does recognise that grief is a personal “Golgotha” but gently suggests that in our grief we might meet our enemies and recognise them as fellow victims and sufferers and so overcome our hatred. It is a courageous poem, one that recognises that it is not until we have understood and forgiven that we have really laid down arms.