Kafka recorded the beginning of the First World War in his diary this way:
August 2, 1914: Germany has declared war on Russia. Went swimming in the afternoon.
That was it.
But, regardless of his lack of enthusiasm, Kafka believed in the duties of the citizen. He tried to join the army to fight. In fact, he tried to join a number of times. He was always refused because the government deemed his civil/government job was too important for him to relinquish.
But, near the end of the war, when Kafka was so sick he had lengthy periods of leave from his job to recuperate, the army came calling. Kafka had to appear before authorities with medical proof of his illness.
In my novel, Kafka In The Castle, I ‘fill in’ one of his diary entries describing such a situation.
07 February 1918
I find I must go to Prague at the end of next week. Such knowledge is proof that one should not open one’s mail. The Military yet again wishes to snare me, and I must once again prove that my hide is not worth the effort.
There were time (very rare) when my father would despair. Not his usual anger at the general incompetence and perfidy of the world around him, but a resignation to the belief that things would never get any better.
“If they want to drag me down,” he would say, “Then I may as well join them. I’ll go out into the street and let myself be swept away by the mob. I’ll become part of their common, grubby life, and let them wipe their boots on me.”
That is much as I feel right now. Let the army take me, dress me in their uniform, point me toward the Americans, and have some cowboy shoot me. Going into battle could be no worse than going into Prague.
One Remembrance Day, I went to the ceremonies in Halifax, NS. The main cenotaph, in The Grand Parade downtown. It is a huge place, nearly a half a city block long and wide. A towering flag-mast is near one end, as befits a sea-faring city.
The city bus, which would normally be nearly empty during a mid-morning holiday run, was nearly full. And part way along, a grouping of twenty uniformed military personnel got on. All Navy. Spit-and-polish. I noted their shoes. I approved.
I arrived nearly an hour before 11:00 o’clock, but there were already hundreds present. The Grand Parade was awash with people, so much so that they were asked to keep on the grass, so the parade itself could manoeuver when it arrived. There was a tent where actual World War Two veterans sat. It was chill and cloudy, but no rain nor snow arrived.
Pipes and drums and a military band made themselves known in the distance. A flag carrying, colour-party of veterans marched in, followed by ranks of modern military and red-uniformed RCMP. Followed by veterans and cadets and children and organizations. In, and around, and back they marched, to finally face the cenotaph itself. Crisp orders. Boots solid on the stones. Music. Hundreds of spectators.
The ceremony follows a set routine, of course. Much is squeezed into the eleven minutes around the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. A too-brief portion of God Save The Queen. Oh Canada. The Last Post. Booming artillery from high up Citadel Hill. A military helicopter clattering over us. The minute of silence. The chaplains with their words. And God’s.
There were two new (new to me, at any rate) events, and one occurrence that was impressive indeed.
Three flags – one of Canada and two smaller military – were lowered to half-staff during the ceremony. It was quite a distance to descend, and their wires screeched.
Six white doves were released. I doubt they were so-trained, but they flew into the distance and then came right back over the crowd before leaving.
And, the last note of the trumpet ended at the exact second the steeple bells began to chime its eleven times.
There is really no time to cheer during this sombre ceremony, but sometimes it is tempting so to do.