“Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.”
– G.K. Chesterton
When the order was telegraphed, the garrison was under siege.
And it became hard to know who was dealing each particular death. Was it the Luftwaffe above? The Panzer tanks from all sides? The seething Nazi fighters filling every conceivable gap?
The British and French fighters hunkered down and fought valiantly from their coastal fortification in Calais. The Nazis had shocked the French Army, the British Expeditionary Force and the world in utterly routing the forces arrayed against them in the Battle of France. In a matter of six weeks, Hitler’s forces had achieved what the Kaiser couldn’t achieve in four years of fighting World War I. And as several hundred thousand British and French soldiers found themselves stranded on the barren beaches of Dunkirk, they awaited rescue from the sea or death from the sky.
The Calais garrison awaited rescue too. But then the order came.
Because any and every method was necessary to draw the Nazi forces away from the vulnerable soldiers at Dunkirk, Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw the Calais garrison as the last best option. And yet this meant the worst possible consequences for four thousand brave soldiers.
The British destroyers that were prepared offshore to rescue the men would not rescue them. Instead, the men were ordered to fight to the death.
“To Brigadier [Claude] Nicholson. The eyes of the Empire are upon the defense of Calais, and [His Majesty’s] Government are confident you and your gallant regiments will perform an exploit worthy of the British name.”
Amidst dire circumstances and with death or brutal captivity awaiting him, Nicholson stood his ground. Several times, the Nazi forces shelled Calais relentlessly and then sought surrender from him. He turned their emissaries away.
“Surrender? No, I shall not surrender. Tell the Germans that if they want Calais they will have to fight for it.”
Later that evening, Churchill himself would dictate a telegraph to Nicholson,
“Every hour you continue to fight is of greatest help to the British Expeditionary Force…Have greatest admiration for your splendid stand.”
Consequently, the Calais garrison didn’t give hours of resistance. It gave four days. In the end, many were killed. Even more were captured. Nicholson himself would die in German captivity in 1943. But the Calais garrison’s resistance and Hitler’s mysterious halt order were instrumental in giving time for the “little ships of Dunkirk” to save nearly 350,000 soldiers.
Claude Nicholson was no fool. He grasped that he was either going to die or endure a fate worse than death. He had no illusions when the telegraphed order came. Though the war looked bleak, he had a duty to uphold. Though the Nazis overwhelmed his base and certain annihilation awaited nearly all of the cornered French and British Army, he and his men had their honorable part to play. Though theirs was a lost cause, it was a cause they would not abandon.
And yet the story of Claude Nicholson and the Calais garrison teaches something about lost causes.
They aren’t always lost.
Again and again, they are the inspiring stories of history. Members of the French Resistance, tortured and killed by their vicious Nazi overseers, who would never see a liberated Paris with General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French forces parading down the Champs-Elysees. Hundreds of Greeks and Spartans, killed after insurmountable odds at the Battle of Thermopylae, who would never know the victory their cause would ultimately have against their Persian nemesis. Martin Luther King, Jr., gunned down on a hotel balcony, before he would see the fuller fruits of his efforts realized.
But it is also the story of our faith. St. Bartholomew flayed alive, St. Maximilian Kolbe starved and poisoned, St. Peter crucified upside down, St. Edith Stein marched to the gas chamber, St. Damien consumed by leprosy, St. Dymphna beheaded. Each faced horrific ends for causes rooted in faith. Where, they must have wondered, is my God amidst this hell on Earth? Was theirs a lost cause?
And they knew it. Akin to Nicholson and his garrison, embattled by evil incarnate, the saints knew that in the midst of pain and angst, hopelessness and helplessness, God endures. Because even the Christ – the Source of their hope – raised his head during his brutal crucifixion and cried, My God, My God. Why have you forsaken me? Even the Christ, for one solitary moment, sounded in his suffering like a lost cause. But then he rose from the dead, explained the glorious narrative to his disciples, and ascended to heaven.
We will encounter “lost causes” in history, but we especially encounter it in our faith. Ours is the Faith of Lost Causes.
Lost causes, after all, aren’t always lost. Just ask Claude Nicholson. Just ask the saints.
They may be the only thing worth fighting for.
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