THE THOUSAND YEARS' WAR


In the 1950s I was a small boy. My father was in the navy, so I lived in Plymouth and Malta. Bomb sites - the rubble of buildings destroyed by bombs - were everywhere. My parents had lived through the war, and both my grandfathers were killed at sea, but I never really thought much about it. You don't, when you're a child, unless you have to live through it. The time before you were born is all but meaninglessly remote. You cannot readily imagine your house destroyed, your whole village burned, no food to eat, no shelter, your parents dead, your twelve-year-old sister raped, her arm broken with the bone protruding through the skin, your baby brother too weak to cry as he dies from starvation and cold. It is as well that you cannot. But this is what war is like.


Donjon de Moncontour. This castle is just under 1000 years old: it was probably built in about 1030. It wasn't built for fun, or to look picturesque. Fulk Nerra (987-1040) built it, and the one 10 miles away in Loudun, for war. Since 1013 he had been supplying military aid to Budic of Nantes. This is why I refer to the Thousand Years' War.

Nowadays it's a romantic backdrop to these modern buildings: a part of our Precious History. But the Precious History wasn't so much fun if you had to live through it.


Since 2003 I have lived at the northern extremity of the Aquitaine. Over the centuries it has been much fought over. Almost paradoxically war is now more real to me. I'm much older: I've met people of my own age, and younger, whose school playgrounds were machine-gunned from the air, or who were tortured by invaders.  The horror of war is more immediate when your friends tell you about it over a drink.


There's not much obvious evidence of WW2 where I live now, though just before I wrote this I came across the little monument in the picture below, a few miles away. There are however plenty of reminders of earlier wars. Nearby Thouars played a major part in both the first Hundred Years' War (the Capetian-Plantagenet wars of 1159-1259) and the later, better known, Hundred Years' War of 1337-1465. The Wars of Religion (1562-1598) were vicious here. Although the Battle of Moncontour lasted only four hours on October 3 rd, 1569, casualties are estimated at 6,000-8,000. That's about 3-4% of the population of France at the time, though not all the combatants were French: there were Swiss on the Catholic side, and Germans on the Protestant side. For comparison, the population of the UK today is roughly 60,000,000. Imagine a battle on British soil that led to 20,000 casualties in four hours. It puts terrorism into perspective.


Memorial to the Maquis (Resistance). The inscription translates as: In this place, in the summer of 1944, Alexandre Bouet, a farmer, transported and hid several tons of weapons and ammunition for the Maquis of Scévolles and the liberation of France.

Neither the Thirty Years' War nor the Napoleonic Wars touched us too badly: the actual battles were fought far away, in others' villages, towns and fields. Here, women and children and the old were spared until starvation claimed them. Distant battles were no guarantee of safety, though: local war memorials from World War 1 typically list a dozen, or two dozen, or three dozen or more dead from each tiny village. Those in bigger towns and cities list scores and hundreds. 

Until quite recently, most people lived in houses or hovels that burned quickly and easily; they did not leave ruins like the gutted churches that are seen in so many cities as 20 th century war memorials. Local ruins here are much more likely to be the result of what the French call d√©sertification, the disappearance of agricultural jobs and the consequent migration from villages to towns and cities, though given the way historians give the name "Hundred Years' War" to a series of wars spanning 116 years and "Thirty Years' War" to a series of wars from 1618 to 1648, we might as well consider WW1 and WW2 as another Thirty Years' War: 1919-1939 was never much more than a truce. There were after all plenty of truces, cease-fires and lacunae during both Hundred Years' Wars. 



Water garden . This is my garden beside the river, detached from the house. The spheres on top of the water-gate are almost certainly artillery balls, whether from the Hundred Years' War or the Wars of Religion. In the former case they would have been fired by siege engines; in the latter, by cannon. Either way, imagine one of these falling on your house or rolling through the ranks of an army, crushing and dismembering men and horses.  

There has not yet been a single war between two members of the EU. Before they joined the EU, yes. Non-EU members since the founding of the EU, yes. But EU nations don't have wars with one another. There have been the Irish Troubles, of course, and ETA in the Basque country. For that matter, there have been Baader-Meihof and the Red Brigades. But they haven't had access to tanks, bombers and heavy artillery. They've not been able to destroy whole villages and towns and slaughter the inhabitants. This sort of thing doesn't just belong to a mediaeval past. In June 1944 it happened in Oradour-sur-Glane, a couple of hours' drive from where I live. Six hundred and forty two people were killed by the SS. Many were burned alive. Look at that monument to the Maquis again. 

Yes, the same sort of thing happened in Vietnam. It's still going on today, in Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. But it's easier to understand when you live where it happened. My own comfortable house must stand on the site of someone else's house that was burned or razed in or around 1371. Outside Karlovac in Croatia in 2008 my wife and daughter and I saw perfectly ordinary 1960s or 1970s housing estates abandoned, the walls perforated by tank fire and pocked by small arms rounds. Think about that. Wife and daughter. What would war have done to them 30 years ago or 650 years ago? Suddenly 1371 is recent history. Whoever lived here then almost certainly had a wife and children too. History (war) lies thick on the ground.

The EU isn't perfect. Nor is it the sole reason there have not been more European wars since 1945. No-one pretends it is. But it is infinitely better than war, and it is a major contributory factor in deterring them.


War memorial, Moncontour . Look at him. Today the sun is reflected on him, and he is repainted every decade or so, but throughout the winter he looks cold, miserable, and thoroughly pissed off. 

Along with the names of thousands of others, my grandfathers' names are on the Plymouth war memorial: George Hicks and Harry Reynolds. I sometimes wonder how they died, but I dare not wonder for long. Were they killed quickly by the explosions that sank their ships? Did they drown, trapped below decks? In his last minutes (or maybe hours) did George think of his wife Hilda and their children, my father Billy and his sister Margaret? Was he too exhausted to stay awake, even in the relatively warm Mediterranean? Did Harry die (relatively) swiftly and mercifully of hypothermia in the ice-cold waters of the Arctic convoys, thinking of his wife Olive and his children? My mother Beryl and her sister Barbara were both at St Austell High School for Girls. Their younger brother Frank was not yet ten.

Never mind my family. Look at the ruins of Oradour. Go into the church where the women and children were burned alive, unless they had already been killed by the hand grenades lobbed through the windows; look at the church bell melted by the fire. 

Now tell me that the EU isn't a good idea.


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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016