Before Anzac Day

It sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it, to have a title like this? Since Anzac Day 2013 is after the fact – by several days. But I was suddenly taken back to a time when the world was comparatively innocent; before events made Anzac Day a tragic icon. And all because a newsreader mentioned sabre-rattling in relation to a modern-day emperor!

One hundred years ago, it was one year and a few months away from a war that was so terrible and soul-destroying that we still look back through history in wonder and despair at the dreadful carnage and cruelty, overshadowed by courage and sacrifice that takes the breath away.

Weather conditions, combined with new and diabolical methods of warfare, against old-fashioned defences, all conspired to make the trenches of the Western Front a nightmare to transcend all.

As a child, I was aware of an indescribable feeling compounded of grief, horror and hopeless dread whenever someone mentioned WWI. There were still many people alive who’d gone through it and though they never said anything I picked up this vibe. It was so bad that I couldn’t bear to go there and so never studied it. I cannot, to this day, watch war movies.

When I grew older, I asked the question: “What caused WWI?” No-one could tell me. “It’s complicated,” they said. “There was no one cause.” Still, I couldn’t bear to study it.

Finally, when I got to Book III of the Master of Illusion series (Yes, it’s written.), I knew I would have to face my childhood dread and research the Great War as its backdrop. And guess what? Nothing had changed. That feeling of overwhelming grief and horror that haunted me all my life was exactly what I felt after my actual research. The dreadful loss of life. The terrible damage to those left alive. The futility of it all. The awe-inspiring courage and sacrifice of the young men who went into battle knowing they would die.

Would we line up like that knowing what they knew?

But back to 1913. Life went on as usual in the last year of the Belle Époque: fashions, hedonism; empire building; the usual protests, including women’s suffrage; small wars here and there, nothing serious; a general feeling of progress and well-being.

Yet discerning men were aware that Europe was fraught with tension: a sense that the fire was laid, tinder dry, waiting for a spark to set it off. (The murder on June 28 1914 of the Archduke and Duchess of Austria-Hungary provided it.) Small Emperors posturing, sabre-rattling (those words again); certain countries in terrible poverty, others comparatively rich; powers forming strategic alliances …

If any of this rings uncomfortable bells, it is because history is prone to repeat.

A small fry in the train of a major architect and prosecutor of WWI was an Austrian corporal. As a front runner from HQ he had been wounded, gassed and decorated for bravery. (You know who!)

If he had read his history he would not have attacked Russia and WWII might have had a different outcome. I guess we can be thankful that he didn’t read about Napoleon I. But, despite his experiences, he didn’t learn any lessons from WWI either. Had he done so, he could have saved us the years of misery, loss and destruction of WWII.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple: the seeds were already planted in 1919. A number of factors, including the unfair demands of the Treaty of Versailles, the misery of the people and Hitler’s mental condition led to WWII. (I don’t pretend to have my head around it all.)

It is a good thing to study history to avoid the mistakes of the past. I hope our present leaders have all done so. But just in case they haven’t, I think it would be good for all of us who believe in the power of prayer to pray with diligence for peace and understanding between nations.

I make this plea to our world leaders: Please don’t make us revisit this theatre of horror. Leave war where it belongs – in the pages of history.

Punishment or Privilege?

While researching the period around the French Revolution, I came upon a reference to the guillotine which gave an unusual insight into the thought processes of the historical figures I delve into. I did find it quite a novel point of view and one that had never crossed my mind.

To me, the French Revolution, more particularly the time known as la Terreur, has always epitomised bloodshed and barbarism on a scale only equalled by the Roman gladiatorial contests in the coliseum. Shuddering through the blood-spattered pages of A Tale of Two Cities, I would hardly have thought it a privilege to mount the gory steps of Madame la Guillotine, attended by such notorious tricoteuses as Madame Defarge and a cheering pack of rabid and bloodthirsty sightseers in the Place de la Revolution, previously known as the Place Louis XV( now the Place de la Concorde).

Although similar devices had been used in Scotland and other European countries, its invention has been attributed to Antoine Louis. First called Louisette or Louison, it was later named after the gentleman instrumental in passing a law requiring its use in France for capital punishment. It was experimentally tried out on cadavers but the first living person to be guillotined was a highwayman, on April 25, 1792 in the Place de Grève.

But listen to this reason given by French physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a member of the National Assembly at the time, for the introduction of the guillotine into France in 1792:

He said that all death sentences should be carried out by ‘means of a machine’ so that ‘the privilege of execution by decapitation’ would be available to all; and that the process of execution would be as painless as possible.

It would seem that decapitation as a form of punishment was reserved for the nobility; while common people were hung with grisly alternatives depending on the severity of the crime. Thus, decapitation appears to have been regarded as one of the many privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy. Certainly, it was one which a great number experienced during la Terreur. And while I can think of several terms to describe the process of the guillotine, privilege is not one that springs readily to my pen.

Painless? Perhaps. No-one has been able to come back to tell us. But privilege? I would hardly have thought so. And neither, I suspect, would the unfortunate souls deemed enemies of the Republic and brought in tumbrils through jeering crowds to end their lives in humiliation and despair. Although it surely has it over being hung, drawn and quartered (what kind of evil mind could dream up that one?), another gruesome alternative for the non-aristocracy, along with being burnt at the stake and broken on the wheel(thankfully banned by Louis XV).

The French Revolution may not have totally succeeded in its ideals for equality in life and most definitely not for women. But I have to hand it to the Revolutionists: Madame la Guillotine certainly ensured equality in death.