I read an article recently which suggested that in years to come we will look back on the First and Second World Wars with the same level of emotional detachment with which we view Agincourt; no celebration of the British as plucky victors or the French as conniving oppressors justly defeated, just simple acknowledgement of a battle that changed history.
Perhaps the author is right, perhaps that time will come, though I suspect that the longevity of the media footprint of both world wars will keep them alive in our collective memories longer than we might think, but what then? Will Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day fall away as a quaint old custom that people did “back in the day” to commemorate the end of the First and Second World Wars? Or is there, should there more to it than that?
“When you go Home, tell them of us and say,
For your Tomorrow, we gave our Today”
When we stop at 11 today to pause and remember, when we try to explain to our children that there is so much more to the Poppy Appeal than whether you get a pink snap band or a purple one, whose tomorrow, and whose today?
I’ve told some of my family stories here over the years; my Grandma who worked as a mapping clerk for the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War, and my Great Great Aunt Nance who 100 years ago today was a ward sister behind the trenches in France, and on Remembrance Day I think of them, and those whose stories I have yet to tell, both in thankfulness and in profound gratitude that they came home again. And this year on Sunday my mind wandered back to a peaceful sunlit corner of a village in Northern France where over the summer I stumbled upon the grave of someone whose name is on the war memorial of my childhood.
And then I remember one more name, someone who I find it much much harder to write about.
How do you describe the moment when, sat at your desk on a sunny August day in 2007, you click through the page on a news website to read that the latest casualty from Afghanistan is not the friend you knew was there, but another familiar name and the smiling face from an old photo that confirms that your school reunions will now never be complete.
He wasn’t part of my closest circle of school friends, but someone who none the less I knew well. My clearest memory is from when we were fourteen or maybe fifteen. We were on our French exchange trip, and when we’d all arrived at our partner school and found our exchanges, we two had another two and a half hours drive back to where our French friends lived, cobbling together some sort of polite conversation in French to his exchange’s mother while desperately fighting off the sleep deprivation from a night spent on a hot stuffy bus. It still makes me smile, we must have sounded like we’d fallen off the set of ‘Allo ‘Allo!
That he died still working to protect the men under his command in the face of insurmountable odds could come as no surprise to anyone who knew him, and the Military Cross awarded posthumously is a worthy tribute to someone who was quite simply a good bloke.
I don’t believe that I choose not to forget, I think that when you have a personal connection, however small, you simply cannot forget. I see poppies each autumn and I think of the boy I once knew and the faces we pulled at each other while coming out with the kind of French that baffled Madame and would have had our teachers tearing their hair out had they heard us.
Perhaps there is a risk that when in the years to come we reach the point at which there are no living WW2 veterans, and then no one who personally knew them or those who died fighting with them, our commemorations of Remembrance will become an empty shell, nothing more than the pomp and circumstance that accompanies them, a chance for the poppy mafia to take pop shots at anyone in the public eye daring to be seen without one, and for politicians to strive to outdo each other’s ‘remembering’; even while countries around our beautiful planet live through the unrest that reveals the hollowness of their posturing. If that ever were to be the case then our words lie, because then we have already forgotten.
But I believe that there will always be a thread of remembrance running through our lives. Remembrance is not about one particular conflict, or battle, be it Agincourt or the Somme, but a consciousness passed down from generation to generation, through stories told, and, while conflict exists in this world, through more lives lost. A thinner thread now than in the decades past when a shattered Europe tried to piece itself back together, but clear and unbroken none the less.
And while that thread remains, we have not, nor will we ever forget.
For Kay, for Annie, for Arthur and for David