Every year when Remembrance Sunday is coming around, people start proudly displaying poppies on their social media profiles, while the louder, less reflective among them start the annual game of naming and shaming politicians and celebrities who have disrespected our glorious dead by appearing in public without displaying a poppy prominently enough.
And every year I struggle to resist the urge to scream “If you really cared about the more than a million individual British serviceman and women who died in the two World Wars – almost 90% of them in ‘The War To End All Wars’ – you’d focus less on the ‘glory’ and concentrate your mind of what their loss meant to the fiancés, wives, children, siblings, parents, relations and bosom buddies they left behind!”
And this year, the same as every other year, I was forced to remind myself that the ‘Glorious Dead’ aspect of Remembrance Sunday is so thoroughly established that it’s literally carved in stone so any attempt to challenge its dominance angrily, is guaranteed to elicit waves of incoherent but heartfelt patriotic fury, with little to no chance of actually opening up a dialogue, let alone influencing anybody’s thinking on the subject.
Which always seems so ironic when you consider that many of them will have seen “All Quiet on the Western Front” (maybe even read the book); or if that’s ‘just too heavy’ (and about Germans soldiers, so nothing to do with our glorious dead) just about everyone watched the final “Black Adder”; some might even remember “Oh What A Lovely War”; while others will have heard songs like “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and “The Green Fields of France” and felt – as my friend Dave said just the other day – “a nail in the heart”.
I determined I would say something this year – albeit very gently – so late last night I phoned my sister because she’s the keeper of the family archives and although I already had snaps of my young dad with his wings and the Lancaster he flew, she has the photograph of my maternal Grandpa in uniform that I thought I might need to vouch for my credentials as a direct descendant of a veteran of ‘The War to End All Wars’.
As it happens, I came across a copy on a cousin’s Facebook page while my sis was still struggling to find it among the thousands on her phone, so for the rest of what turned out to be the best part an hour, she reminded me of more and more information – including the fact that my paternal grandfather had served too – and all the while my eyes were scrutinising the screen sized photo of my grandfather to be; a smooth faced teenager, with a dimple in his chin, two stripes on his arms and the inescapable look of one of life’s innocents.
Which of course he was; I still remember him telling me how he’d been a corporal when he arrived at the front, which was never going to go down well with older veterans who were junior in rank. Fortunately one of them took him under his wing and taught him his rear end from his elbow (my gramps never ever swore). Unfortunately his real life guardian angel’s guardian angel wasn’t quite as up to the job because he’d later been killed right alongside my teenage grandpa.
It’s was a Remembrance Sunday over fifty years ago when we had that conversation, which means I would only have been a year or two younger than he’d been when he’d lied about his age to enlist. But he didn’t weigh down my youth with any brutal details of what he’d been confronted by in the trenches; my most lasting memory of that day was being allowed to closely examine the fading “Death before dishonour” tattoo on his forearm, which he’d had done in France in 1917; that and the that fact that his eyes had welled up while he spoke – something I’d never seen a man do before.
Consequently it would have been many years later, long after he was no longer available to talk to, before I even began to get my head around the sort of hell he must have walked into – and by that time I would’ve been too old to truly comprehend how that would have felt as an adolescent.
My sister reminded me that she’d written something a couple of years ago about a conversation she’s had with our gramps when the 50th anniversary of the start of WW1 was being commemorated in 1964.
‘As an opinionated 14yr old young woman, having read the poems of Wilfred Owen – especially “Dulce et Decorum Est” – and of Siegfried Sassoon, I could see nothing “glorious” in the waste of life that was WW1 nor any war. I was looking forward to the future with high hopes and high ideals. I told my Grandfather this – in his own sitting room – and that I couldn’t understand why “They” were still going on about it… that we should let it go… surely he didn’t need to be reminded of it etc etc. I could be quite vocal on subjects that I felt strongly about.
I was then told that it was not the war but the people – as individuals – who should be remembered.
Grandpa said that he always thought of one man (whose name sadly I don’t remember) not the many who had died. They had been standing together, when suddenly a bullet went through his head and killed him. It was so random Gramps said, a few inches the other way and it would have been him. In fact he said that at the time he felt that it should have been him, as he was a young single man in his teens, and only his mother would have mourned him, whereas the other man was 21, married and had a child – therefore leaving a widow and orphan.
Gramps pointed out that had he been killed, I would not have been sitting there having the conversation. I was lovingly but firmly put in my place.
He told me that that was what we needed to remember – the individuals. So every remembrance day I remember the man who died instead of my Grandfather – so that we could all “be”.
Reflecting on my lovely, gentle grandpa’s words to my cocksure teenage sister (relayed back to me almost 60 years later by my lovely retired big sis), I imagined that German bullet deviating just a few inches either way and I had a “Back to the Future” moment as my grandpa bled out, which caused my mum to disappear with a barely noticeable pop, before me, my sister and both brothers joined her and my heart felt a surge of pure dread as I saw my four children and all their cousins dissolve, taking all those gorgeous grandchildren with them.
I totally understood why my grandpa suffered ‘survivor’s guilt’; it would indeed have been ‘only’ his mother who would have been left bereft seeing his name added to the list of the ‘Glorious Dead’. On the other hand, in a world where hope springs eternal, who knows what the future might have held in store for the child my grandpa’s compadre had fathered before he was taken at the age of 21. Who knows how many of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren might be spending this Remembrance Sunday – just like every one since 1919 – giving thanks for the young man who had died so randomly before any of them were born, but without whom, none of them ever would have existed.
I couldn’t help wondering if the young man who died in that trench in France in my grandpa’s stead, might have been the same older veteran who’d made life bearable when he first arrived at the front? Obviously I’ll never know now; nonetheless it’s reassuring to think that if the child he left behind did go on to engender another two, three or four generations, everyone in every one of them will be well aware of his name and the ultimate sacrifice he made because he believed it was required to ensure their future.
Ultimately though, the name of the young man who died that day isn’t the important thing, he is just another illustration of why the Unknown Warrior provides such a crucial symbol which allows us to keep in mind that every single one of the almost 900,000 British servicemen who gave their precious lives in WW1 – as well as everyone who died in subsequent hostilities – had a name and, but for the conflict that stole their futures, faced a lifetime of possibilities.
I have absolute respect for everyone who lost their lives in that carnage, and my heart goes out to the millions of others who lived but not without sacrificing their limbs, their health, their eyesight, their hearing, their faces or their peace of mind. I have nothing but admiration for the brave men who suffered everything from trench foot to mustard gas, before marching steadfastly into a hail of bullets, all the while seeing friends and comrades falling about them; but the ones who really make my heart ache to think about, are the men and boys who must have been absolutely terrorised by the bombs, bullets and slaughter happening all around them, but in spite of their every instinct screaming to run and hide, continued to advance alongside their brothers in arms.
If I believed that Remembrance Sunday was truly about never forgetting all of the people whose lives were cut short or ruined in the service of this country – an annual painful reminder that we should never, ever treat lives so cheaply again – I would be standing as close as I could possibly get to the cenotaph every year, with a pain in my heart, a lump in my throat, and tears brimming in my eyes.
However given that I’m about the age my gramps would have been when we spoke on that Remembrance Sunday at the tale end of the ‘60s, I can never forget that it is precisely those people in Whitehall who stand so rigidly, bow so perfectly, and lay the first wreaths so solemnly, who will be commanding the bands to play something stirring and patriotic while they explain why it is essential that yet another generation needs to put their lives on the line to avenge the death of some foreign Archduke, to regain some rocks way down at the bottom of the world, or to nullify some non existent WMDs in the Middle East; and if you are even half of my age, you will know as well as I do that they are 100% guaranteed to invoke the spirit of our Glorious Dead when they do so.
Among the many interesting items my sister supplied me with were a pair of poems my great grandmother wrote on the 10th and 11th of November 1920, which she “Dedicated to The Unknown Warrior and In Memory of All Who Fell in The Great War, 1914-1918”, after she joined the throng of people who watched in respectful silence as he arrived in Dover aboard HMS Verdun and then assembled with the tens of thousands who lined the streets of London for his State Funeral at 11am the following day.
While searching for a suitable images to illustrate this piece I discovered this fascinating and poignant article about the Rev David Railton, who originated the idea of the Unknown Warrior and “didn’t hold with pomp, titles or even war”.