100 years ago today the guns on the Western Front fell silent. The horror that was World War 1 had ceased.
And it was horrific. Apart from the millions killed, millions of others had their lives and futures torn apart. It was in that spirit that the ceremonies of remembrance started. They meant it when they said, never again. The war memorials that sprang up across the country, often funded by individuals, have names on them to remind us that each life lost was a person, loved by someone.
I woke up this morning to Michael Morpurgo reading a poem about aunties. I had two great aunts who never married. There simply weren’t enough men to go round. These women had no prospect of children, and some of them had no other family. My great aunts were “lucky”. They had my Mum, my brother and I to act as proxies for the children and grandchildren they could never have.
The armistice, a ceasefire, became peace at the Treaty of Versailles, with judgement meted out to those who lost. To diminish the ability for hostile forces to reassemble, and probably also to punish the defeated, countries were split, borders redrawn.
It must have been chilling, just 20 years later, to see the foundations for World War 2 being laid. If World War 1 was when people went to war, World War 2 was when war came to the people. The horrors didn’t just return home, locked in peoples minds or visible through twisted or broken bodies. Instead the horrors rained down on communities.
After 1945, The feeling of gratefulness of survival gradually changed. For the UK, Korea was distant; Suez, a disaster. The threat was mutual annihilation.
When I was young, boys’ comics gloried in victory. After all, By then we hadn’t just won two world wars; we’d also won a World Cup. Sitting through remembrance services in my teens from the mid 70s, I was never sure quite what to think. On the one hand, our teachers, more or less all of whom had some wartime service experience, were sombre. But on the other hand, we’d won. War was somehow seen as exciting amongst my peers. Stories about heroes, such as Douglas Bader, obscured the narrative that wounds ruin lives, that not everyone has that level of self-determination. Poppies were expected to be worn in school from the start of November. Not to wear one was disrespectful, the kind of disrespect that could earn you a discrete thump.
During the 80s, it seemed as though remembrance faded. We’d gone to war again, this time in the south Atlantic. The 90s saw gulf wars and Bosnia. The growing global news coverage showed us that war was common. “Never again” became quaint, prosaic, idealistic. Then we became aware that the generations who lived through those World Wars were passing away, taking their internalised horrors with them.
It struck me this morning how the acts of remembrance haven’t changed in all the time I’ve attended them. The music, sombre yet heart swelling, almost all has its roots in Victorian or Edwardian times. It’s the music of empire, of greatness, and is now associated with resistance, resilience and victory.
I have the utmost respect for those who serve and who have served our country, and who are prepared to sacrifice their own lives. And, of course, without the millions who did sacrifice their lives and their futures, it is doubtful whether we would have the freedoms we currently have. Grateful doesn’t really begin to cover it.
We have kept war distant from our shores. But that means that war is visited upon someone else, and a fresh set of communities torn apart, facing unimaginable horrors. Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Columbia, Burundi, Israel and the West Bank, …
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,And towards our distant rest began to trudge.Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hootsOf gas-shells dropping softly behind.Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumblingFitting the clumsy helmets just in time,But someone still was yelling out and stumblingAnd flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.In all my dreams before my helpless sight,He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.If in some smothering dreams, you too could paceBehind the wagon that we flung him in,And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;If you could hear, at every jolt, the bloodCome gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cudOf vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—My friend, you would not tell with such high zestTo children ardent for some desperate glory,The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Somehow, we must learn to say, “never again”, and mean it.