Remembrance Day

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I was dismayed to see how few places were selling poppies this year. It used to be that there was nowhere you could not buy one. This year, I had to look. And yet, in almost every town and village today, there will be poppies. Not just in this country, but in many others around the world. Paper symbols that defy the divisions created by borders and unite us in a common act of remembrance and gratitude for those who risked and gave their lives that the next generations might be born into a free world.

We do not remember some mythical conflict that glorifies the horrors of war. We remember those who fought, men and women, even animals. We remember that of those who went to war, many did not return. Some were volunteers, others conscripted…. to many were little more than children, just teenagers.  All faced death, mutilation, and horror. All faced the same guns.

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Violence, even on the level of nations, can never be right. It is not a good answer, though sometimes it has been seen as the only answer or defence against a greater evil. Today, that argument has no place. We are not remembering the policies or the politics of war… we remember those who gave all they were for their country, their homes and their people.

We remember too those whose battle was not fought with guns. The women who waited for their husbands, fathers and sons. The women who wept and cradled a photograph as they had cradled their babe. The children whose fathers and brothers never came home. Those whose homes and families were obliterated by bombs. Those who took in refugees from the cities and from overseas. Those who filled the gaps left in daily life by those who would not return.

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In every town and village there is a roll of honour listing the names of the lost. Sometimes on a cenotaph, sometimes a book or a plaque in the parish church. Few, even the smallest hamlets, were left untouched. In the village where I live, the Roll of Honour lists 80 names, some as young as eighteen, many from families who still live here, whose names and youngsters I know. Today, the population is around six hundred households. At the time of the war, it was a much smaller place. Generations of men, fathers, brothers and sons, we killed, leaving a deep scar on the life of this one small village. Across the world, it is a story that was repeated. Few were left untouched and many of us knew those who had fought…and whose silences told more than their stories ever could.

We do not even know the full total of those whose lives have been lost to conflict since the onset of the First World War. The total is thought to be around 200 million lives, including those deaths listed as collateral damage, which are considered to be ‘an unavoidable, legitimate byproduct of waging war’. Men, women, children… just ‘collateral damage’…

Today we remember the dead, the wounded, the maimed… all who served, at home or overseas no matter what their country of origin, no matter what their faith or belief. We may think back and recall the stories we have heard of personal valour and heroism, of compassion and camaraderie, of kindness and resilience. It is there that the only glory of war can be found…in the heart of individuals, in humanity…and it is there that peace has its roots. Mankind is capable of greatness, but not through destruction.

For a little while today, we will stand in peace and unity to remember the dead. We remember them in the name of the peace they sought to win.

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”

Laurence Binyon

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The man without a face

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I must have been ten or so. We were on a school trip to York. As we walked beneath the arches of Micklegate Bar, a man walked towards us. The group fell silent, then the whispering started, and many pretended not to look or gawped instead. I knew about the ribbons he wore on his chest… they meant he had medals. I don’t know whether he was a veteran of the first or second World Wars… There was no way to tell how old he was. He had no face.

If I had the skill to capture memory with a pencil, I could draw him perfectly still. I have never forgotten him. Taut skin stretched and puckered, dead white with even whiter scars crisscrossing where his nose and one eye should have been. He had no hair… no ears… only holes in the side of his head. His mouth, little more than a pale line.

He looked neither right nor left, the crowds of tourists parted like some biblical sea in front of him as everyone seemed to want to keep their distance. He must have been accustomed to that effect… he had to have lived over twenty years that way. For some reason, the way he walked, perhaps… the smartness of his dress… I thought he was an airman.

Beneath the narrow archway he passed within inches of me, close enough that every detail of his face was imprinted on my memory. I remember clearly the personal dilemma… should I look away in case my gaze was an intrusion or look at him because he was a human being, and a serviceman, and I came from a family that had also served. Few families had not through the course of those two wars, but my father served still when I was young. He could have been anything… anyone… and so, somehow, he was everyone.

There are few now living who remember the start of the first Great War in 1914… the war to end all wars, or so it was hoped. The last serving veteran in Britain was Florence Green of the Women’s Royal Air Force, who died in 2012 at the age of 110. Claude Choules served in the British Royal Navy (and later the Royal Australian Navy) died 2011, also aged 110. He was the final surviving combat veteran of the conflict. Harry Patch, who died aged 111, was the final survivor of the trenches. Harry had fought at Passchendaele where it is estimated that well over half a million young men were killed or injured. No-one even knows how many.

If they are now gone, why should we remember?

There are children who grew in a fatherless world. Sons who had to become men too fast, taking the places of the lost. There were lives forever blighted by nightmares and memories, of what they saw, what they suffered… who they killed… Men and women who would speak instead of camaraderie and laughter and turn away to use a handkerchief or clear their throats.

And it wasn’t the war to end all wars after. It was ‘just’ another war in our appalling human history of bloodshed and violent conflict. We followed it with Dunkirk, D-Day, the Holocaust, Stalingrad… and still we fight, still the killing continues in every corner of the political globe.

To the soldier, sailor or aircrew who serve, the political debates and arguments matter little…. They are there because their country is at war, right or wrong. A dead German boy would have been mourned just as much by his mother as an Allied soldier. A Yemeni child just as much as an Afghan.

Last year alone it is estimated that over a hundred thousand human beings have lost their lives in armed conflict. It is hard to make sense of such a number. It is too big to grasp. Too impersonal. It needs a face.

Or not.

When I think of Remembrance Day, many faces flit through my memory, of grandparents and other family members… of friends who have served… of an old sea dog named Mick… and of a man without a face, whose face I will never forget, and who will, for me, forever be the face of war.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Robert Laurence Binyon [1869-1943]

First posted November 2015

Nous sommes Paris

‘I want to believe we’re not going to live in a world of fear.’ Dr Louise Hefez. Eyewitness.

Like so many others today, I wait for news from Paris. Not the impersonal horror of announcements in the media, but the email to reassure that amongst the dead and injured of this atrocity are not those I have called friend or family.

I lived, laughed and loved in Paris. I worked and played there. Married. For many years I was known as Madame Verron. My sons are half French, their father a Parisian and I have called friend those of every faith and nation encountered in the City of Light.

Friendship does not discriminate.

Neither do bullets. Nor do bombs.

Nor should we.

There are over two million people living in Paris. It is statistically unlikely that anyone I know has been involved. It came closer with Charlie Hebdo… Even so, I now wait for news… just in case… as do thousands of others across the world.

For some, the news has already arrived.

They weep for those to whom an offhand ‘à bientôt’ or ‘à demain’ will be the last words they uttered and for whom that ‘soon’ or ‘tomorrow’ will now never come. For every one of those lost a whole family and a circle of friends will grieve. For each of those injured, a ripple of pain will spread wide. For those who walked away physically unscathed there will be the scenes lodged in memory, of horror and fear as they watched helpless, that will colour their lives. For all there is the stunned horror of knowing that human beings did this to each other.

For some, there will be the knowledge that such an atrocity was perpetrated by those they love. Not all will agree with such actions and will abhor the crime committed. They too are victims.

That this atrocity should be the act of a human hand rather than accident or natural disaster makes a very real difference to the ever-unanswered questions that will remain. In spite of statements to the contrary, is not an arguable act of war. It is murder.

And why? What purpose does it serve to slaughter civilians? None at all, except to drive a divisive wedge of suspicion, hatred and fear deep into the heart of the human community.

Because one man wreaks horror and hatred upon others it does not justify hatred of a race. Because a minority of extremists take it upon themselves to speak, unasked, for others, that does not render all guilty of murder nor should such atrocities be allowed to engender global hatred. If it does, the extremists have already won.

While the hearts of the free world go out to those in Paris, there are other victims of terrorism across the world, those who flee their homes to escape extremism, those who mourn daily the less reported atrocities, those who now walk our streets in fear of terrorist attack… or reprisal because of their faith or nationality.

Our governments tighten security, planning their responses to these atrocities; some individuals burn for revenge and retaliation, even against the innocent. Most simply wish we could find a way for the world to live in peace and feel too small on the global stage to affect the outcome of events. Yet peace has to begin somewhere and it can only begin in the hearts and minds of individuals. For that we are each responsible.

Nous sommes Paris. We are Paris. We are everywhere that is touched by violence, terror and extremism. We are of a single global family and every killing is fratricide.

‘In this climate of terror, it is important that we (…) speak out and remain united in the face of this horror that has neither colour not religion. Let us defend together love, respect and peace.’ Lassana Diarra, footballer, whose cousin was amongst the slain.

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