Remembrance season reminds me of a story I heard as a child.
A young soldier was marching on a parade ground somewhere in southern England in World War II, when he suddenly noticed that he was completely out of step with the rest of his platoon. Then in a flash he realised that in fact it wasn’t him who was out of step – it was everyone else.
Instead of marching with their left feet on the first beat of each bar of the music – “Left, Left, Left-Right-Left” – the entire platoon had their right feet first. And their right feet were the wrong feet.
So here was a dilemma for the young soldier. Should he change feet and join everyone else, making him technically wrong but giving the comforting appearance of being right? Or should he stand his ground, and continue to be the only soldier getting it right even though he would appear to be the only one who was wrong?
This story fascinates me and has stayed with me. It demonstrates so beautifully that it’s possible to be entirely right while looking wrong, and be entirely wrong while looking right.
Anyway the young soldier made his decision: he stood his ground. For a few terrifying minutes he remained alone, out of step, the only man spoiling the neat parade.
Then something interesting began to happen. The men around him began to notice he was out of step, and to realise that he had a point. One by one they switched feet, until the whole platoon was finally united. “Left, Left, Left-Right-Left.”
Daring to be different sometimes changes outcomes. I know this was only a parade but I think the principle holds good. Because there’s a second story in my head this Remembrance season too. I only learnt it this year and its details remain sketchy, but I’ll tell you what I know.
It’s about a Frenchman called Georges Blambert. He was born in 1924. He lived in or near the picturesque village of Doucy-en-Bauges in the foothills of the Alps near Annecy, reached only by a long road which zigzags its way round hairpin bends amid stunning scenery. The soundtrack of his childhood would have been cowbells, strapped onto the necks of the grazing cattle with thick leather straps. Months of thick snow would have given way to lush summers, and I can imagine him as a boy, clambering over the rocky hillsides and exploring the thick forests.
Georges Blambert, this child of the mountains, died in 1945 at the age of 21. He’d dared to stand up to Nazi occupation and was deported to Mauthausen camp in Austria as a member of the French Resistance. He died a few weeks after it was liberated, and I desperately hope he was not so close to death that he never knew he’d won.
I don’t know what he did or how he was caught. I only know the fragments of his story because we stumbled on the war memorial in his village during a summer walk in his paradise valley. In its cold stone it told the usual story: the same surnames repeatedly cropping up, staggering numbers of dead men and boys from a tiny, scattered mountain community. It listed where they had died: some in the mud of the Somme, others in places which we hadn’t even realised had seen conflict.
And, unlike many French war memorials, which list only World War I dead, this tiny village had three names added from World War II, one of them the young Georges.
It turned out that this beautiful, remote area had been defiled by many Nazi atrocities: hostages killed; villages burnt to the ground; young men like Georges Blambert taken from their idyllic childhood valleys to brutal life and death in concentration camps. It’s a stark reminder that there’s no such thing as an Earthly Paradise. As long as there are people on the planet, there’ll be conflict.
So what links these two stories? Well, the young soldier on that English parade ground was my father, and I’m so, so proud of him. He was lucky in the war: while Georges Blambert and his Resistance comrades were on the brutal front line, he was deployed to West Africa, where much time was spent playing football.
But I like to think that a man with the moral courage to march out of step shared something of the physical courage of Georges Blambert: the courage to dare to be different, to stand up for what’s right, and to hang the consequences. And ultimately, to influence the way things turn out. They’re both my own personal war heroes this Remembrance Day.