To those I’ve wronged, I bow my head I’ll cover your graves with flowers and life I know you wanted me dead instead My sins cut like a sharpened knife
I can’t forget the lives I stained For they are gone and I grieve their loss Fire turns treacherous if not trained And thus I hang on Jerusalem’s cross
The faces of the men I send to their death Haunt my nightmares once I close my eyes The burning red flames of my last breath An answer to their endless cries
And with that breath I free my soul It flees my skin and in the sky it’ll dance Enjoying life before the end of it all Perhaps to be given a second chance
Sir Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945 and later from 1951 up till 1955. At this time he was a member of the Conservative Party.
He considered Gallipoli the greatest tragedy of his political career (which is what the poem describes). As Britain’s lord of admiralty (secretary of the navy), he made the fateful decision to attack Turkey on its Dardanelles coast, specifically at Gallipoli during the early days of the First World War. The failed campaign led to the humiliation of the British. Churchill was dismissed from his cabinet position, excluded from the War Council, and allowed no hand in the further conduct and administration of the war.
Helmut Schwarz and Fritz Birken had been childhood friends ever since they could remember. They had done everything together, walk to school from neighbourhoods deemed unsafe to helping the other get a job, making up amazing facts that until the moment they made them up, the other didn’t poses.
They shared food when the other didn’t have enough money for a nice sandwich, or blankets when the other was freezing, they laughed together when the other made a stupid joke and they got detention together for the stupid things the other had done.
They did everything together, so, naturally, they were going to fight together too. And that they did.
Here they stood, after years of service and months of being hunted down. They were worn-out, you could say, they looked older than they actually were, a layer of mud and sweat covering their face, their eyes defeated and pained.
They held their hands up in defeat, showing the enemy they were not ready to die. Because they weren’t sure what came after death and if they’d be separated. After so many nightmares they had lived together, they couldn’t lose the other. Not now.
They saw the enemy closing in on them and just as they had always done, they pretended to be strong. In reality, they were scared, wasn’t it for the small amount of dignity they still had left, they would’ve crumbled to pieces right then and there.
Once every few seconds they shared a glance, but it was different from the look they had shared minutes before. There was no panic, no adrenaline, just sadness and fear. A hint of relief maybe, none would ever tell a soul they were somewhat happy. The war was over.
And if they had to surrender, they’d do that together too.
Although they didn’t share any words, they knew exactly what the other was thinking, and it hurt. They had no idea what was going to happen, as English words were thrown at them like insults. And with the last minutes they shared together, they said goodbye and thank you.
Thank you for all those years of kindness and joy, all those times of bringing me back safe when I was drunk, all those times of running away with me when I did something stupid, thank you for all the years of you being my friend. And last, thank you for being there. Thank you for being there on the frontline, for protecting me whenever you could. Thank you for coming with me, for being my rock. Thank you for being my friend. My best friend.
Helmut Schwarz was forcefully pushed around by what some called heroes and liberators, others enemies, parted from his best friend. Fritz Birken, gentle as he was, tried his best not to lose his friend out of his sight, but was soon swallowed by the Americans.
Without being told why, they pushed our German soldier, Helmut, in front of the Chaplin, who didn’t seem very stressed or fazed. Being parted from the rest of his group set our Wehrmacht soldier on edge, yet there was nothing he could do. One wrong move and he feared he was gone.
The Chaplin stepped out of the car, calmly, and with what was to be read as compassion, walked up to a man who had killed other people. One of the biggest sins. None the less, here he was, being torn between faith and friendship, watching how the one person he had still left, was being pushed inside a car.
Hopefully he wouldn’t get sick, he always got sick in those army vehicles, especially with this weather. If he’d collapse they might leave him for dead. He had heard stories of Americans leaving wounded Germans behind, so he wondered, would they really?
Lost in thoughts he suddenly felt a cold finger on his forehead, water dripping down his skin. He twitched slightly, wanting to step back. He urged himself not to, watching how the Chaplin blessed a man some saw as nothing more than scum, the devil’s soldiers.
Why? One word, so many answers. Why did the American care? They were both believers, though in two different things. Or he believed, once, a long time ago. And as he was met with the soft smile of a man who had just given him God’s blessing, he allowed himself to look around.
There were so many American’s they would’ve never stood a chance. They didn’t try. Other soldiers might have done so, though none of them wanted to die, so they made sure the chance of them doing so in the last months of the war was as slim as possible.
He stepped inside the car, next to the Chaplin, who started his engine. Behind him was a jeep filled to the brim with armed American soldiers, were he to try something stupid.
Maybe it was because he accompanied the Chaplin and had a lost debt to God he had to be paid, or maybe pure luck, but they were driving right behind the truck they had pushed his best friend in, Fritz. He recognized him immediately. Force of habit perhaps, always having to know where his clumsy friend was.
They pulled up, a silence none of them seemed to mind hanging in the air. It wasn’t an awkward silence, or a silence for they didn’t know how to communicate with the other. But somehow, he needed feel the need to start a conversation. He was driving with a Chaplin, what could go wrong?
For once, there was peace. Something they thought they were bringing, but now found out they had been taking all along. It was this sudden weight being lifted from your shoulders, as he finally enjoyed the sunshine again, the soft laughing of men and the wind against his face.
If this is how they were to lose the war, he didn’t fully mind. For the first time in months he felt like he was free, not while protecting what he thought was worth protecting, or walking through villages they had taken, no, he felt free the second he thought his freedom would be taken from him.
Maybe the Americans were liberators after all?
On photograph: (left) Nick Geerling (Fritz Birken) and Bryan Pisters (Helmut Schwarz). Taken by Jan-Thijs Koppen
The streets I once walked with my friends and family, had been reduced to nothing but stones and dust, while shattered lives were there for everyone to take or have a look at.
The worst thing was, after another bombing, another night in our shelter, another day of fear, I forgot to care. I forgot to care about those who lost their lives, those who lost everything keeping them together, or those who lost their future, because of the Germans.
The Germans, a nation that was destroying another. A part of me thought, how could they? How could they throw those bombs on our cities knowing what would happen? Who in their right minds would make the choice to destroy the home front, instead of the front lines?
But then it dawned on me, after a too long while. We were back-up, we were the very roots of our boys out there, we were the hope they sometimes didn’t have. And if the enemy found a way to destroy us too, peace and faith would crumble to pieces.
I looked across the rubble, old shops I used to visit, houses that once belonged to my friends, even an old piano I used to play, had been scattered over the ones so beautiful street, and humanity’s sense with it.
We would take revenge, I knew we would. But I wasn’t so sure I wanted to. The only way we could show we weren’t soft, was give the same blow back, only harder. And I didn’t want hundreds of lives on my conscience just for my pride.
This was war, everyone knew it. So instead of crying, for there were no more tears to cry, or hide, for there was nowhere left to hide, I tugged down my dress, opened the dying door, and walked outside, straight into the arms of chaos. Because I’d never show I had broken.
If I did, I fear there’d be no one who would be able to help me, and I’d lay there, wracked in between my shattered past, feeling sorry for myself. No, I couldn’t. I had to be strong, for anyone I had left.
Or at this point, anythingI had left.
The photograph shows London in the Blitz, 1940, with her ruined streets.