This past Sunday my church commemorated Remembrance Day, and that brought a story to mind.
Many years ago, a relative of mine—my grandfather’s cousin, and so my first cousin three times removed—enlisted to fight in the Boer War, in Southern Africa. The Boer War was the first war that Canadians went overseas to fight. They did so for patriotism, for Empire, and for King, though probably not so much for Sir Wilfred Laurier, the Canadian Prime Minister at the time. Laurier would only send volunteers to South Africa because he didn’t want to offend Quebecers who thought fighting a war for England halfway around the world was just plain stupid. Maybe my fellow Canadians were right.
The thing is, my grandfather’s cousin didn’t fight for the Canadians or the British. Pieter Schuil was a Dutchman who volunteered to fight for the Boers in a fit of righteous indignation at what the British were doing to the Boers. Tragically, Pieter was ultimately executed by firing squad. I have a letter written to Pieter’s parents, in Dutch, by the English Chaplain who prayed with Pieter on that last day, both on bended knee, Pieter with a Bible in his hands.
There is more to Pieter’s story. It seems that he may have been unjustly executed, though this is disputed. The British claimed that while carrying a white flag, he came toward the British lines, and then suddenly lowered the gun and started shooting. At his court marshal hearing, Pieter claimed that it was no flag of truce, but just a hankie tied to his gun for no reason in particular, and that he never approached the English lines. He had been unhorsed, and was simply caught up in the British advance.
And there is more yet to the story. This was a war for empire in its worst sense. The Boers had set up two small independent countries to get away from British rule in the Cape. What is more, they didn’t ask the Africans, whose land they conquered, for permission to set up those countries. After gold and diamonds were discovered in the one of little Boer states--which had made peace with Britain earlier--the British attacked in order to add the Boer territory to their own. It was an imperialistic land grab for the empire. Again, no one asked any Africans for their permission.
When the British regulars defeated the Boer armies, the Boers refused to surrender and engaged in guerrilla warfare. The British responded by pretty much burning down every Boer farm they could find, inventing concentration camps, and then filling them not merely with soldiers but with women and children from the burned out farms. At least 20,000 Boers and an equal number of Africans charged with feeding the Boers died of hunger and disease in the camps. Pictures from the camps look eerily like pictures from Nazi concentration camps 40 years later. It was a dirty war that brought no honor to England, the Boers, or Canada.
An interesting personal footnote is that forty years later, after the Second World War, my Shona daughter-in-law’s grandfather, a wealthy African cattle rancher, had all his land expropriated by the British so that they could give it to returning war veterans. Without land to range and feed his cattle, he sold most of his heard at a huge loss and became a refugee in what was then Rhodesia. No one ever asked him what he thought of the Boer War or the two World Wars. His descendants mostly grew up poor and landless and angry that white invaders had dispossessed them of everything they owned.
War is an ugly business. So what do I do on Remembrance Day? Should I remember my family members who died at war, even if they fought on the losing side? Or when they fought for mistaken ideals? Or should I remember only Canada’s heroes, young men and women who fought with honor and courage, even if the wars they fought were sometimes unjust? Or should I have preached a sermon on how all war is hell and how we all ought to work like angels to make sure we don’t fall into another? After all, as Jesus once said, those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and “Love your enemies,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
And, by the way, who exactly is calling Christians children of God these days, anyway?