A couple of days ago I read on the BBC about the funeral of the last British WW1 veteran, who died a fortnight ago, aged 111, and nearly bawled. A part of our history is now gone forever; there are a few others left, but only one who saw action, and none who fought in the trenches. Of course it seems ridiculous to be so upset by the death of a 111-year-old, and even more so to be sad for the passing of a period of history that we should be glad to see the back of. It is unquestionably a Good Thing that we no long send our young men to be slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands over pointless geopolitical disputes.
The sadness, therefore, comes from two things. The first is the feeling that in those terrible times, ordinary people did extra-ordinary things. But more important is the fear that now that the horror of the trenches no longer lives in memory, we may forget it. Of course we won’t really – there is a wealth of testimony, including an autobiography written by Mr Patch when he realised that his would be one of the last voices to tell of the past. And having vivid memories of total war did not stop Europeans going back to war within a generation. But Western Europe in the last sixty years has been one of the world’s great peacebuilding stories; as I write this I am wearing a hat with the European Union logo on it (Dad, if you’ve been looking for it, sorry), and we have managed to refrain from killing one another for the longest period in our history so far.
The memories of our past now serve more to bring us together than to force us back into conflict – again, something that Mr Patch saw as crucial. At his funeral, at his request, his coffin was carried by Belgian, French and German soldiers, a piece of symbolism that again threatened tears. But it was also this that showed the wider relevance; if he was only a survivor, his death would be distressing. But he made it a symbol of unity and reconciliation, showing that out of tragedy, we can find hope and progress.
Gerard Prunier has called the war that still engulfs the great lakes region ‘Africa’s World War’, and I have spent the last two months in a country that must be seen as at least as traumatised as Europe in 1919. There are groups that blame one another and demand revenge, but, unlike in Europe in 1919, they have avoided this temptation. I won’t labour the point by trying to extend the comparison too far, but for me there are two lessons to be drawn. Burundians who have known nothing but war have told me of their longing for peace, and their hopes for what their country can do now that they have it. But Europe’s lessons tell us that that is not enough; it would be harder to find a population more desperate for peace than Europe in 1919, but within 20 years they were back at war. The second is that peace is possible; it took a second attempt in Europe, but eventually we got there.
I shared this story with some of my Burundian friends, and one person gave me a response that was one of the most moving I have heard in this country; the hope that in sixty or eighty years, the last veteran of the Burundian war will be buried, his coffin carried by the descendents of all sides, and the sense that a piece of history has passed. I passed this reaction on to Pierre Claver and Marie Rose, a CNDD-FDD Parliamentarian, and no-one laughed. I think there is a real risk that this country will slide back into war, but the story of Mr Patch’s death reminded me that there is also hope.