I’ve always found that observing the two minute’s silence on Remembrance Day brought a lump to my throat. But this year, I listened for the first time to the Fureys singing Eric Bogle’s beautiful song”The Green Fields of France” and it really got me properly choked up. In this blog, I want to try and think about why I feel so sad, and why the loss of these fallen soldiers still impacts on people like me, so far removed from it all, nearly a century later.
I should start by saying my sadness doesn’t stem from any personal loss – I was born a comfortable distance after 1945, and discovered World War I through the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. As far as I know the only family member I lost in World War I was Hughie, an uncle of my grandmother. His first name and his image, preserved in an old sepia-tinted photo handed down through the generations, is all I know of him. Sadly, I’m not even sure of his surname; I don’t know whether he was the brother of my great grandfather, or my great grandmother. He really is, in Eric Bogle’s words: “a stranger without even a name/ Forever enshrined behind some glass pane/ In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained/ And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame”.
He looks young in his photo. I never heard my grandmother or her sisters mention any fatherless cousins who might have been his children, so I assume he died unmarried and childless. A branch of our family cut off, cousins and aunts and uncles who never existed. Of course we don’t miss the unborn, the relations who never were, in the same way that we suffer the pain of losing those we’ve actually known and loved. But his death did mean that my grandmother was brought up by a parent who had lost a brother in the war a few years before she was born, a parent who had to try and put that grief to one side while raising a young family. And children do know if their parents are carrying a burden of sadness. Is it possible that my grandmother’s slightly fearful, anxious personality, which to an extent both my mother and I also inherited, was in some way the result of the loss her parents had suffered?
If the grief suffered by those who lost loved ones during the World Wars can still be felt by future generations, it is, of course, nothing compared to the grief experienced by those who actually lost husbands or parents or best friends in conflict. But perhaps it goes some way towards explaining why, despite the passing of the years and the dwindling numbers of those who were actually there, Remembrance Day is still so important for us. Perhaps it’s because so many of us, either knowingly or unknowingly, collectively carry the sadness of our parents and grandparents and great grandparents. Perhaps the loss still impacts on us, just diffused through the generations, and Remembrance Day is an opportunity for us to face this half-buried sorrow and put a name to it?
Or is it more than this? I’m increasingly convinced that ongoing war, and more dead soldiers, is a fact of modern life and our leaders are perfectly happy with the status quo. I was born in a ‘peaceful’ time and yet I can reel off the names: the Falklands conflict, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan… wars continue to rage, soldiers continue to be sent to die. The futility of their deaths, the sheer waste of it all, is something else that chokes me up, with anger and frustration as well as sadness. Because quite clearly, those in authority have never seriously considered “never again” as a viable proposition. David Cameron has talked of a “commemoration like the Diamond Jublilee, that says something about our national spirit”, while Michael Gove dismissed any criticism of the senseless slaughter as “the attitude of an undergraduate cynic … in a Cambridge Footlights revue”. This year Remembrance Sunday coincided with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – an event which symbolised peace and unity like no other in my lifetime – and yet it seemed that no British political leader thought it worthwhile to comment on this celebration of putting aside of old differences in favour of our shared humanity .
And this makes me think that for some people – not the former servicemen, not the general public, but specifically our political leaders – November 11th is not about expressing regret or sorrow, but a display of cheap jingoism to shore up the establishment. Far easier to honour the war dead with a poppy and a solemn face than by committing our country to peace not militarism. Far easier to treat the young men of this country as potential canon-fodder in the “war against terror”, than to invest in our education and industry so that our young people have decent options here at home. Wilfred Owen wrote about “the old lie/ Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” and today’s politicians offer a dumbed-down version of this message, backed up by a saccharine Joss Stone wafting her floaty dress amongst thousands of ceramic poppies, while her fresh-faced young hero walks tall into the sunset. I don’t mean to imply that today’s service men and women are ignorant about the dangers they face, but those who are brave enough to consider joining up today should do so without any videos like this one implying that it’s somehow a glamourous option, otherwise they’re just a latter day version of those old “Your Country Needs YOU” posters.
So Remembrance Day makes me sad, but it makes me angry too, for those who have lost their lives and for those who will lose theirs in future. And when I see the British Prime Minister (take your pick, any of those in my lifetime fit the bill) carrying their wreath on Remembrance Sunday, I’m reminded of Siegfried Sassoon’s chilling poem, At the Cenotaph.
I saw the Prince of Darkness, with his Staff,
Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
Unostentatious and respectful, there
He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
‘Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
Means; their discredited ideas revive;
Breed new belief that War is purgatorial
Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
Men’s biologic urge to readjust
The Map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust;
And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace.’
The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph
Bowed. As he walked away I heard him laugh.