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Grey-Clad Conquerors

On the Low Countries.

There is a special joy in reading history where it happened, at the time of year when it happened. And I have been relishing a second journey through Barbara Tuchman’s wonderful book The Guns of August while rambling round what we used to call the Low Countries, Belgium and the Netherlands. For reasons I will come to, this is fascinating in itself. The state border between these two nations no longer exists in practice. Sometimes the only way to know which one you are in is to check which company is supplying the signal for your cell phone. Between northern Belgium and the Netherlands there are no customs or passport checks. An ordinary train runs hourly between Brussels and Amsterdam, though they do not advertise it much, perhaps hoping that foreigners will instead use a much more expensive superfast express. The money is the same and it is hard for an outsider to spot the differences between Netherlands Dutch and Belgian Flemish. All of it is full of glorious cathedrals and their towers, superb pinnacled town halls and stately squares. And there is some of the finest art ever painted, providing a powerful religious and historical education at the hands of Rembrandt, Van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden, among others.

The first few weeks of the First World War are Barbara Tuchman’s subject, its accelerating folly, courage, romance and its appalling harvest of death. Many think that the worst horrors of that inexcusable war were committed in the churned slime of the Somme and Verdun in 1916, and these were indeed terrible achievements of waste and mass murder. But the squandering of young men’s lives by proud and vain old men, in those first few days, was astonishing. By late August 1914 much of Belgium stank of putrefying flesh, both of men and horses. Perhaps this stench even wafted across the then clearly defined border with the Netherlands, which on that occasion escaped Germany’s attentions. More than one hundred years later, you need to look carefully to see traces of it, but they are there. Take the enjoyable university city of Louvain (I use its French name because it is better known around the world, but it is locally called by its Flemish title of Leuven). Its market square and city hall are architectural joys, and the center has a pleasing unity. But look above the shop and café signboards and you will see on many buildings a curious uniform plaque. It bears the date “1914,” a sword, a flaming torch (presumably symbolizing fire and the sword), and a crown. Each building which bears this sign was burned down by German invaders in 1914, in an act of mad vengeful spite. They imagined that Belgian civilians were shooting at them, and resolved to deter this imaginary resistance with mass shootings. But when the invaders were at last driven out, each destroyed house, shop, café, and office was painstakingly rebuilt in its original state as an act of defiance. There are several hundred of these plaques. And by the Louvain railway station there is a huge and distressing war memorial, a howl of pain in worn stone, which carries the names of as many civilians as it does of soldiers.

But the most startling of all Louvain’s mementoes of war is the Catholic University Library, burned by the Kaiser’s soldiers and restored (largely by American contributions, including one from the New York City Police Department) in the 1920s. The Germans burned it yet again when they came by the same route in 1940. On its front stands a sculpture said to be of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I say, “said to be” because it is the only such statue I have seen in which Our Lady is wearing a warlike helmet and holding a sword, with which she is doing something unpleasant to a prone eagle, presumably representing Germany. It is not that I do not understand the sentiment behind this, which must mainly be anger. I do. I sympathize with it. I think many of my countrymen are far too complacent about the good fortune and the deep salt water which have so many times preserved us from this fate. It is not for me, an uninvaded Englishman, made safe by the sea, to preach contentment or submission to my continental European neighbors. We have made a shameful conquest of ourselves in many ways, but that is our fault. Their tranquil countryside and streets were invaded by legions of grey-clad conquerors, and by screeching rivers of grey steel. Their independence and freedom were stolen from them by cruel conquerors. A little further north, in lovely Delft, I was similarly struck by a stained-glass window celebrating the liberation of the city in 1945 (for in 1940 the Dutch were not spared invasion as had happened in 1914). In this depiction, the beaten German occupiers are portrayed as the devils of Hell, being thrust back down into their pit by the angels of democracy. I think our forebears in the Middle Ages, who tended to attribute their victories to God and his angels, and their personal preservation to one saint or another, or the Blessed Virgin herself, would greatly agree with such portrayals. There are non-religious ways of making the same point. One of my father’s 1939-45 war medals shows a British Lion trampling rather fastidiously on a German Eagle.

But can we really look on war in this way as a righteous struggle in which the angels are on our side? Might such a view not make us love war too much, and Christ a good deal too little? Has it not already done so? Hasn’t the special wickedness of various recent enemies made us begin to imagine that war can be not only necessary (as it sometimes must be), not only just (as it can rarely be) but actively good (as I believe it never is).

Mrs. Tuchman’s book contains many striking moments, but none to me matches her account of the appearance, outside the Belgian frontier fortress city of Liege, of the vast guns secretly developed by the German Empire for the day of wrath they had been planning for years. “Their squat barrels, doubled by the recoil cylinders that grew on their backs like tumours, pointed cavernous mouths up at the sky. . . .” One Liege citizen described the arrival of “a piece of artillery so colossal that we could not believe our eyes . . . the monster advanced in two parts, pulled by 36 horses. The pavement trembled. The crowd remained mute with consternation . . . Hannibal’s elephants could not have astonished the Romans more. The soldiers who accompanied it marched stiffly with an almost religious solemnity. It was the Belial of cannons.” Belial, you will recall, was (or perhaps still is) the chief of the sons of darkness, the lawless angel of enmity, made for the pit. The account goes on to say that where the huge shells fired from these guns landed, men did not just die. Those who were not torn to pieces in many cases went mad with the terrible noise, blast, and stench. It is the first of several mentions Mrs. Tuchman makes of men, brought up in the lovely peace of prosperous Europe, going mad when they first saw the face of modern war in 1914.

These guns were made to terrify by their power, and to destroy the defenses of peaceful small nations which desired only to be left alone. They were arrogance and greed solidified into steel. No wonder their infantry escorts marched stiffly and reverently, no wonder their crews, like devotees of a cruel idol, lay flat on their stomachs, many yards off, with special pads over their eyes, ears, and mouths, as they squeezed the electric triggers which fired them. I still get angry about the Germans in the First World War (this does not mean I am unmoved by their second attempt in 1939, but that conflict and its accompanying crimes have become the moral scripture of our times and there is less need to state a position). I am tormented by wondering if and how 1914 and the evils it unleashed could have been avoided altogether, and how much beauty and brilliance and true human progress might have been made without it. I see a modern Europe paradoxically dominated by Germany despite its two colossal military defeats. I note that Belgium, which fought so honorably (and paid such a tremendous price) for its neutrality, integrity, and independence in 1914 and again in 1940, no longer has any borders and no longer has its own currency. Far from being neutral, it hosts the headquarters of two huge alliances, the European Union and N.A.T.O., and belongs firmly to both. And across the whole mighty continent, now once again at war, the fading power of Christianity flickers and dies, and a new warlike and earthly replacement morality—in which virtue carries a gun —supplants it.