Remember…

Paper poppies bloom, as fragile as the lives they represent. Every year it is the same, I try to find some way of saying what is in my heart and the words will not come.  I was not there, I have no right to speak of war and its atrocities. I have not seen it with my own eyes. I have never aimed a gun at another human being and been faced with the choice whether to kill or be killed. I have not tried to sleep in cold mud made from the earth of a foreign land mingled with the blood of my comrades. I have not lost my child to war.

I have no right to speak, but nor have I the right to remain silent when the price of my freedom to speak was so high. I have a duty to my own conscience and to all whose lives were given in service to their country or lost to the horror of some political expediency written in blood.

There are many tales of heroism and valour in the field, tales that highlight the beauty and nobility the human spirit can attain. But war is never beautiful, nor is it the glorious myth we have historically created when we need recruits.  War is born from the desire for power. Whether a formal declaration of war is made by the aggressor or the defenders, whether the war is fought for necessary or political resources, to uphold an ideal, for the betterment or protection of a way of life or for its imposition, the cause of every war is an idea…and ideas are born first in a single mind. For this single idea, or because we feel we must defend ourselves against it, we are prepared to sacrifice an entire generation, yet we will read about  tribes who sacrificed a single human life for the good of the community and call them barbaric.

Today, with our so-called smart weapons, we can obliterate a whole city remotely, not just one person, not even one generation, with the touch of a button.  Gruesome death is a constant on our TV and cinema screens, we even play games with it. The gift of life is cheapened and our reverence for human life seems a thing of the past. Yet that life is our own… and ironically, our fear of death seems to be greater now than ever before.

This year sees the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele. There is no accepted figure for the number of lives lost in that one, appalling battle, though it is certain that over half a million men were killed, maimed or wounded. That we do not even know how many is perhaps commentary enough.

Harry Patch, who was the last surviving, fighting soldier from WWI, fought in that battle. He died in 2009 at the age of 111, and was given a military funeral at which he requested not even ceremonial guns be present. He had spent eighty years trying to forget the horrors of war, but when he reached a hundred years old and was brought to the eyes of the media, he was once again asked to remember…and for the last years of his life, he spoke of little else.

Harry believed that war was wrong and that a war that would eventually be settled around a table should be fought there and not cost millions of lives in something he saw as “nothing better than legalised mass murder”.

Harry was wounded at Passchendaele by a shell that killed three of his friends. A short while before his death he was asked what it felt like to be the last man alive to have fought in the trenches.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “I sit there and think. And some nights I dream – of that first battle. I can’t forget it.

“I fell in a trench. There was a fella there. He must have been about our age. He was ripped shoulder to waist with shrapnel. I held his hand for the last 60 seconds of his life. He only said one word: ‘Mother’. I didn’t see her, but she was there. No doubt about it. He passed from this life into the next, and it felt as if I was in God’s presence.

“I’ve never got over it. You never forget it. Never.”

He spoke of how, from arriving on the battlefield to leaving it, wounded, months later, he never had a bath or a change of clothes. He spoke the fear and of the choice between shooting to kill or to wound and the pact he had made with some of his comrades never to kill… a pact that could have had them shot by their own commanding officers.

He spoke of a horror many of us will never know or understand. He hoped we never would.

Across the world we turn to remember with respect those who served their countries or their ideals in the Great War ‘to end all wars’ a hundred years ago and in all the arenas of war ever since. Regardless of the reasons for going to war, the valour, the sacrifice and the suffering of those who serve cannot be denied. Every year, there are those who call for an end to our remembrance, saying that it is now old history and as relevant to our lives as the wars of Rome or ancient Greece. I will wear my poppy with millions of others in the hope that in remembering, we can learn from our bloody history… for we continue to write it.

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million. Over 16 million died and over 20 million were wounded.

The total number of casualties in WW2 is thought to be between 60,000,000 to 85,000,000. Such was the scale of that conflict there is a gap where we simply do not know… a gap of some 25 million. As if the entire population of New York simply disappeared.

And that doesn’t include the casualties who suffered horrendously but survived their wounds.

It doesn’t include those who suffered the emotional damage, the mental scarring, the recurrent nightmares, the fear. It doesn’t include the orphans.

It doesn’t include the long term suffering of poverty, dispossession, or the racial and religious hatred that engenders or is engendered by war.

It doesn’t tell of the personal loss that touches all victims on all sides of a conflict… for they are all human beings, like you and me. It does not count the heartbreak of those who waited in vain for their children, siblings, parents and lovers to come home.

It doesn’t show the damage to the land, the mines that take lives long after the conflict has moved on, or the animals and birds decimated by bombing or being drafted into service.

The figures are cold and clinical. They do not dream. They do not wake up screaming.

The counts vary, depending upon who is doing the telling and why, but one thing they seem to agree on is that in total over 240 million men, women and children were killed in war in the 20th century.

And still it continues. Every day.

Since the beginning of recorded history major wars have killed an estimated four billion people… That figure is too vast for the mind to encompass. It is the equivalent of over half the human race alive today. Erase half of your family, half of the people you know or have ever known, half your friends… half your children. Then look at the cenotaphs or the names in the books of Remembrance. War does that to people.

We like to think of ourselves as an advanced civilised society… there has to be a better way and I hope and pray that, one day, we may find it.

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