“La Belgique ne regrette rien,” wrote Edith Wharton in her 1917 poem ‘Belgium’. “Not with her ruined silver spires, Not with her cities shamed and rent, Perish the imperishable fires, That shape the homestead from the tent.”
Her words are steeped in the propaganda of ‘plucky little Belgium’, used to spur Britain and its allies into war. But there’s a grain of truth encased in that shell of national honour.
I’ve seen the First World War described as “pointless” several times in the past few days, reflecting a popular strand of opinion in this country. Certainly it was a cruel and wanton waste of life, and an utterly avoidable one.
But in Belgium and France, and other places invaded and churned up as the battlefields of industrialised ‘total war’, it’s harder to find voices claiming its pointlessness.
All but a sliver of Belgium was overrun, and Belgian civilian deaths rivalled losses at the front. Among them were thousands put in front of firing squads in reprisal for resistance attacks, many imagined by paranoid German officers.
In a square near the Grande Place in Brussels is a statue of Gabrielle Petit, who spied for Britain and circulated a clandestine newspaper.
Executed in 1916, aged 21, an inscription bears her final message: “I have just been sentenced to death. I will be shot tomorrow. Long live the King. Long live Belgium.”
More nationalism. And the tragedy of 1914-18 was, of course, repeated. But on the continent, the memory of WWI has been reclaimed as foundation stone of European unity.
That was on display at the weekend, in the embrace between Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel – a gesture echoing the vigil at Verdun more than 30 years ago by Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl.
But in Britain, where the right and left continue to fight over the war’s legacy as honourable national sacrifice or pointless, bloody class betrayal, Theresa May stayed at home on Armistice Day rather than join world leaders in Paris, and it has somehow taken 100 years for the German president to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph.
War is nothing but regret. Not all regrets are pointless.