War and Peace by Angela Caldin
The Eurostar train slices smoothly through the flat landscape of northern France on its way to Brussels. The land looks rich and fertile with green fields of potatoes, oats, wheat and vegetables interspersed with the occasional startling yellow of oil seed rape. Herds of placid-looking cows graze near the isolated farmhouses surrounded by hedges. Rows of poplar trees spring up like soldiers from the ground, breaks against the wind that often sweeps over the level land. The only signs of life are teams of workers in white overalls spraying between the rows of crops. In August 1914, my grandfather, aged 19, fought with the Second Manchester Regiment not too far south of here in the first few days of the Great War. He was involved in the engagements around Mons and almost certainly fought at the Battle of Le Cateau, a courageous stand which enabled the rest of the British army to conduct a fighting retreat. Here he was wounded and taken prisoner. The accounts of the battle give a shocking picture of chaos and carnage and we can only imagine what he suffered, both there and later in his prisoner of war camp. If we thought that it was better to be a POW than a fighting soldier, the harrowing accounts of life in the camps soon put paid to that notion. But now, from the train window, all is peaceful and serene in the countryside that was once so traumatised and disfigured.
In Brussels, I go to visit the Parlamentarium, the visitors’ centre of the European Parliament, which charts the development of the European Union. It makes starkly clear something that we tend to forget: that the development of European unity sprang from a supranational desire to make war unthinkable and impossible, as well as to reinforce democracy. Heroes of the drive for European unity include Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, Robert Schuman, Winston Churchill and Jean Monnet, all with the same determination to put an end to conflict between nations. The striking photos which line the wall of the visitors’ centre document the teeming events of the last hundred years or so and two stand out for me: the photo of the merging railway lines leading inexorably into the gate at Birkenau and the photo of a procession of people, led by a woman and a little girl, marching out of the Warsaw Ghetto with armed soldiers on each side. It was this kind of extreme suffering and cruelty, as well as the futility and wastage of battle, that the uniting of Europe aimed to prevent happening ever again.
On one level, the European Project has been a huge success. Originally six countries were involved, but now the EU has 27 member states with 23 official languages. The European Parliament has 754 MEPs grouped into 7 political alliances from the left to the right of the political spectrum. The huge hemispherical debating chamber has upper rooms for myriad interpreters to cater for all the languages involved and somehow or other debates take place, voting gets done and laws are passed. With so many people involved, the system may seem cumbersome and costly and we may be tempted to wonder what we get from it. The economic and social bureaucracy generated overshadows the original purpose of the union.
In the evening, I go with my son to Jezus Eik on the outskirts of Brussels where he is playing his saxophone in a concert given by the Brussels Light Opera Company. Studying the programme, I am struck by the names of the participants which show that many nationalities are taking part. They present excerpts from Carmen, A Little Night Music, Our House (Madness numbers) and Beauty and the Beast, with great zest and enthusiasm. At the end, the whole cast come dashing joyfully onto the stage and take a bow, holding hands. It occurs to me later what a strong image of a united Europe this is – so many different nationalities involved in a common, worthwhile, uplifting endeavour. I think my grandfather, who endured so much in the Great War, would be proud to see his great-grandson, who’s worked in a European organisation in Brussels for 8 years, making his own contribution to the cause of European unity and the pursuit of peace.