St Alban’s Church stands distinctively on the edge of Kastellet next to the Gefion Fountain. There is much history surrounding us. On one side, in Churchillparken, there is a bust of Winston Churchill, and also those of two of the country’s Second World War military heroes, Anders Lassen and Kaj Birksted. On the other, there is the bridge over to Kastellet, where the Nazi invasion started on 9 April 1940 when an advance explosives commando on bicycles blew the gates of the fort open. Just around the corner at Langelinie quay, the German passenger ship Hansestadt Danzig slipped into the harbour and dropped off an infantry battalion of 800. The rest is history.
I once met an incredible man called Harry Patch. He was born in my home city of Bath. He was the last remaining British veteran of the trenches of the First World War and died in July 2009 aged 111. Locally he was known as ‘the Last Fighting Tommy’.
I find it much harder to connect to the First World War, although my father was born in 1918. But perhaps this coming year is an opportunity to do so as the commemorations of the centenary of the First World War will be starting around Europe and lasting for four years. In England there is already controversy. On one hand, there are those who want to focus only on the British military victory against the Germans. On the other, there are those who want a much wider commemoration that includes all sides, and asks questions about what the First World War did to change Europe, the world and indeed humanity itself.
The First World War, however, was not just a British and German experience, but a worldwide one. It was fought across Europe, involving − as well as Britain, France and Germany − the overrun Belgium, the countries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, the Balkans and many more. The suffering of all sides on the Eastern Front, if not quite on the same scale as in the West, was appalling. It was also fought in Africa and the Middle East, and on oceans across the world.
There will be arguments still about the rights and wrongs of the war. But there can surely be no denying that from a European-wide perspective, it was a tragedy of human loss and ensuing bitterness that sowed the seeds of future conflicts − the results of which are still apparent today in, for example, the Balkans and parts of the Middle East. It is a moment for Europe as a whole to reflect on the disaster that was allowed to happen, and the lessons that have been and still need to be learnt from it, and also to give thanks for the extent to which European nations are now reconciled and committed to solving conflicts by non-violent means.