Armistice Day, a very powerful time indeed, ninety years on, almost a century after the guns fell silent on the western front, it is a very emotional time especially now as the last of the WW1 veterans pass on.
I read somewhere that there are around five or six veterans still alive today; literally men from another era, a time so far from our own but still very close, men who fought for ideals not their own, for reasons almost incomprehensible to us today.
That is the real tragedy of the so called universal soldier, from the Romans to Iraq.
In ten or twenty years the veteran, missing an arm or a leg or his face, will have the need to tell someone his story and the only reply will be a shrug and a „what the hell did you do that for?“
..And have you seen the old man
Outside the seaman's mission
Memory fading with
The medal ribbons that he wears.
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn't care.
Well I care!
As a brit I can wear my poppies with pride.
My family has lost warriors on both sides of the fence, in France with the British, in Burma with the Australians, in Russia after Stalingrad and the retreat with the Wehrmacht.
I grew up between both worlds so I keep an open mind, please try to do the same with the following tale.
Germany doesn´t celebrate Armistice Day in the way the former allies do, with flags a waving, brass bands a playing, with speeches and reunions.
The black shadow of our history will always be over our shoulders, due to this attitude Germany´s warrior heroes remain largely unknown. No heroic songs get sung over the Wehrmacht Grunt, nobody lays a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Berlin.
Traditionally only a little obelisk in front of the village church or in the town square will serve as a reminder, names carved in each each of it´s four faces with name, rank, age and place of death from the wars of 1866 to 1871 of the great war 1914 until 1918 and 1936 to 1945.
So let me tell you the story of Gerhard Lichter, „Gerhard“ to his Kommis. (bread, used in the sense of bread-brothers, Wehrmacht slang for friends) „Gerhard“ also to his young wife Maria, „Papa“ and only known through Feldpost letters to his two children, Anita and Alfred.
Long after the fall of Stalingrad Maria got the letter, rubber-stamped by the Gauleiter of Fulda.
A standard Form letter, with a blank space for the handwritten name.
In the name of the leader.
Stabsgefreiter Alfred Lichter fell during his duty for his folk and Fatherland
The leader thanks you for your sacrifice
Heil.. (I will not use the swines name)
It was in the beginning of 1945 and Maria had two hungry kids to feed!
Heroics are not just the realm of fighting men; Maria got her hands on an old manually operated canning machine and started to sell preserves of meat, of fruit and other products.
In the coming early postwar years the machine would make her independent from the need of a Amerkaner Boi´fren.
On the 18th of March 1945 the German armed forces capitulated.
Throughout the hunger years of 1945 to the Deutsch Mark reform in June 1948 Maria and her children survived by her work as a Trümmerfrau, a rubblewoman, they cleaned the bricks from the ruins, so many cleaned bricks a food coupon and by selling the conserves she made.
Where she got the meat from I do not know, she took that secret with her to her grave.
In 1955 Konrad Adnenauer, Germanys first Bundeskanzler traveled to Moskau begging for the return of the remaining German prisoners of war.
He got them, from the 3.300.000 Wehrmacht soldiers taken by the Sowiets as prisoners of war, 150.000 of them, the survivors, returned home.
Ich hatt' einen Kameraden,
Einen bessern findst du nit.
Die Trommel schlug zum Streite,
Er ging an meiner Seite
In gleichem Schritt und Tritt.
Three of them visited Maria and told her the story of how her Gerhard died.
The war was lost.
In October 1944 the red army had taken the first German homeland, the only thing left to do was to survive, the Russians inflamed by the teaching of Ilia Ehrenberg knew to kill Germans, kill, kill at best those still in the womb.
On the Eastern front no quarter was expected and non given, the pressure and atrocities of the advancing red army especially the reports of massacre coming from out of the town of Nemmersdorf caused Thousands of civilians to flee over the Frozen Baltic Haff to the waiting ships and submarines in the harbors.
Many of them did not make it.
The Kraft durch Freude (KdF) liners the Wilhelm Gustloff, the General Steuben and the Goya are still filled with the remains of up to 20.000 men woman and children, as usual the exact loss of life is known only to God.
The remnants of the Marine, Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe protected the refugees and held the Russians back as best they could.
This was the German combined forces finest hour.
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
Gerhards´s finest hour was not even worthy of a mention in the Battle reports of the day.
There was a order to blow a bridge situated at a strategic position on a river, the bridge was to be blown at all costs, the problem was that hundreds of civilians, soldiers, support staff and Medics were still on the wrong side of the river.
And the Russians were coming.
Granddad was a world war two German solider, a grunt and a creature of his time in a world trapped between Breugel and Bosch PERIOD!
A veteran of the eastern front with a close combat broach in silver, earned on the edge of a sharpened entrenching spade, I do not think that he would have wanted one in gold, for gold you had torn your opponents windpipe out with your teeth. But that was then, now Gerhard was wounded in the arm and stomach he was bleeding internally and could no longer walk; he knew that he was a liability to his comrades and sooner or later they would give him cigarettes, schnapps and bread they would make sure that he had a loaded sidearm and they would leave him.
He and two kameraden, also wounded decided that their war was over and that this was as far as they would get, they grabbed their MG 42s and volunteered to hold the approach to the bridge.
Some soldiers including those that visited Maria actually carried the three men and their weapons to positions about a kilometer from the bridge, overlapping fields of fire would make the approaches a killing field.
„We gave them Cigarettes and Schnapps, all what we had“ they assured Maria.
„He had his sidearm“
„Get as many over as you can“ were his last words.
At the bridge a half hour later came the sounds of the machine-guns.
The MG 42`s fired for around forty minutes before one by one they were silenced.
One and a half hours later the first Russian mortars slammed into the still large crowd and the bridge was blown.
So far the story of Gerhard Lichter.
Maria carried on with her life, she raised her children to be good people, Alfred became a Book-binder and a Master of his trade, full of contempt for war and all it stands for he arrived for service in Germanys new Bundeswehr wearing an old Wehrmacht uniform as a protest against his conscription and as a consequence spent his eighteen months army time in the can.
For this act of disobedience alone I consider him to be a hero.
He became my uncle in 1971 at the same time Anita became my stepmother before a Blackburn, England, registrar.
The years came and went and as for Maria, now my Oma or grandmother?
She never remarried.
In her last days Maria struggled with Alzheimer's, her mind regressed and became locked in the postwar hunger years, the ground hog days of her own private hell.
That is their tale.
IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.