The joy and the pain of nationality
Last night I watched the WW1 film, Passchendaele. It is a film about relationships, and the effect that war has on them. Not just that, but it is about family and identity, a film that asks questions about who we are and the decisions we make. It is a story about the Canadian involvement in the war, and made me think of Australians who similarly found themselves fighting a European war on the other side of the world. The brutal backdrop of the Passchendaele campaign provides stark relief for the issues the film raises.
My great grandfather, Charles Holdorf, was a Major in the 8th Infantry Brigade, 30th Infantry Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force in World War 1. He was 46 years old when he embarked for France on the troopship Beltana on the 9th November 1915. He was a widower, his wife Florence having died of typhoid in 1908 at the age of 30, after bearing five children. He left the children, one of whom was my grandfather, with their grandmother, Caroline Holdorf, a native of southern Germany. In 1915, when Charles departed for Europe, Grandpa would have been 16. Charles did not fight at Passchendaele but at Fromelles, a much less known campaign of the First World War, and one about which no films have been made, but where thousands of Australians lost their lives just the same.
Those are the facts, and I couldn’t help wondering as I watched the film last night, about how it was to grow up in Sydney during WW1 with a German grandmother, when Australia was at war with Germany. In fact, Grandpa’s father didn’t change the family name to Holford until he returned from Europe, so as a child my grandfather too had a German surname, which he took to school with him every day. His father, meanwhile, was in France fighting against the land of his parents’ birth. How must that have felt? The brutality of war, the deep emotional wounds that are inflicted with the loss of comrades all around, leads so often to hatred of the enemy.
But Charles Holdorf had grown up in a German home, his father from northern Germany, close to the Danish border, his mother from Bavaria, so he must have known many German customs, have eaten German food, perhaps even spoke German, just as my Australian born children know Swedish and Sweden, their mother’s language and homeland. Charles must surely have loved Germany as the land of his parents, but suddenly his country of birth was at war with his parents’ country of birth. He was a soldier. He found himself in France fighting his parents’ countrymen. What happened in his heart as he saw his friends die all around him? How did he reconcile his love for his parents with the hate for Germans which was growing all around him, perhaps even in his own heart? And how was it for Grandpa, going to school with boys whose fathers were falling in battle at the hands of the German enemy? Children can be cruel. Did his friends begin to see even Grandpa as the enemy? Not to mention his German grandmother, with whom he lived.
As a child I was unaware of such things. I never asked Grandpa how it was to grow up in Sydney 100 years ago. I never even realised that he was of German ancestry until I was much older. His name, like mine, was of course English, at least after his father returned in 1917 and had the family name changed. I understand that name change now. I’m sure there were many German names changed at the time. After all, the British royal family changed their name, setting an example for many others. What a relief that must have been for Grandpa, to be recategorised as English.
But what of Caroline, his grandmother, did she change her name too? How did she think of her native land? She was 67 when the war broke out and over 70 when it ended. Germany must have seemed a long time in the past for her. Perhaps it had become so remote that she no longer thought of it as her native land. Perhaps she was thoroughly Australian. She must have been bewildered by the actions of the land of her birth. Overwhelmed by the pain of the conflict that must have taken the sons of not just her Australian neighbours, but her German relatives who happened not to have migrated just when she did. Her husband, thankfully, did not live to see the world plunged into the flames of that terrible conflict, having died in 1898 when Caroline was only 51 years old.
The film Passchendaele touches on some of these questions, but ultimately is a love story, about love across artificial barriers of identity that can so easily jump up from nowhere. It paints a picture of the futility and stupidity of war, of fighting and killing people that are ultimately just like ourselves, but happened to have been born on the other side of the border. How is it that friends and family can suddenly become enemies, and how do we understand the reality that there is as much of the enemy in us as there is in them, and that it is as easy to love the enemy as it is to hate them, depending on the circumstances that we find ourselves in.