Sunday, 11 November 2007

In memoriam

Eighty-nine years ago, on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, the Armistice was signed in a railway carriage in France. This piece of paper brought to an end the Great War - global hostilities that are believed to have claimed 9 million lives and injured 21 million.

It's almost impossible to imagine the impact this had on a generation at the time. But everything about this conflict should boggle the mind, even the best part of a century later.

I had some great teachers at school. And one of them, when talking about the war, asked us to visualise the local St Andrews stadium on a Saturday - say 20,000 people in total. Then he challenged us to think about all those people killed in battle. All those voices silent, all those hopes crushed, all those dreams ended, all those families affected.

Then he told us to imagine those 20,000 deaths happening in just one single day. Most of them in the first hour of battle.

That was the Battle of the Somme in 1916. It went on to claim up to 500,000 lives. Soldiers - just lads, really, many of them young enough to be my son - waded through knee-deep mud, clutching single-shot Lee Enfield rifles with bayonets affixed, towards the enemy machine gun posts.

To this litany of madness we must add other, no less deadly, battles - Marne, Arras, Ypres, Verdun.

After the war, it was noticed that poppies were the first things to grow in the disturbed soil of the wrecked and rutted fields of Northern France, Belgium and Flanders, lending them a red hue. And so it was that the poppy became a potent symbol of remembrance.

So why do we still wear poppies all these years later? After all, the last veteran of the Great War faded away some years back. However, we know now that this was not, in fact, the war to end all wars. World War 2, Korea, Malaysia, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and any number of other conflicts all prove that man's ability to understand his neighbour didn't evolve following the Armistice.

People may say that in 2007 there is no place for Remembrance Sunday. That it harks back to a militaristic past, is outmoded and glorifies war.

But remembrance for the fallen is not the same as glorification. War, in and of itself, is not beautiful. It is the lack of reason, the failure of logic, the end of negotiation. But we can, and should, still honour those who, for better or worse, go to fight. After all, they didn't get the chance to choose where they ended up.

Dedicated men and women are on duty right now around the world. It doesn't matter whether or not we agree with the conflicts to which they've been posted. There are many who are battling to rebuild their lives after injury whilst on service. They deserve our support. Furthermore, there are families who, even today, are struggling to cope with the loss of a loved one. Remembrance, for them, is more than just one day per year.

That is why I wear my poppy. And that is why you're reading this today. On the 11th day of the 11th month.

(P.s. - whilst researching for this post I came across this blog, put together from the letters of a WW1 soldier, with each letter being posted exactly 90 years after it was first written. I can't recommend it enough.)


City Girl said...

What a moving site you've linked us to.

Thank you for a thought-provoking, tender post, FBF.

I think I've said this before, but it bears repeating: You really should consider writing as a second career. You have a great voice and a sensitive perspective - that's a rare combination.

Tom said...

It seems to me that since Britain and Europe in general has the blood of centuries on it and in it, the sensitivity to those events is closer to the surface.

Americans don't understand that. We don't have the innate knowledge of "on this ground". All we have is stories from a long way off.

Thanks for that perspective.

City Girl said...

Tom - You should go to Shiloh.

As a matter of fact, the entire state of Tennessee is a National Park Service "Heritage Area" because of all the battle sites.

Read "Widow of the South" and then drive through Franklin, TN. It is gut-wrenching.


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