Hart of the Matter
Standing in the afternoon sunshine up at Haverhill Cemetery on Sunday and looking around at a good crowd of people who had come out to support the parade, I was encouraged that this Remembrance thing is actually not being wearied by age or condemned by the years, and seems as strong as ever.
Each year, as the veterans of World War One became fewer and more frail, the inevitable speculations went round. Then this year, when the last of them died, there was more of the same thing. Would people bother to go on remembering when there was no one left alive with any first hand memory of the events they were remembering?
Of course, we cannot tell for certain yet. The Second World War is still a very vivid memory for millions of people. When the last of them has gone, the biggest test will come of how enduring this ceremony will be.
There is a major project getting under way to create a Roll of Honour book with a page about each one of the Great War dead named on Haverhill’s War Memorial – 144 of them, I think.
It’s been a long time coming and it would have been easier to do when more of their closest relatives were still alive, but it shows that we, in this community, do not forget.
Although 91 years is not a very specific anniversary, this year’s Remembrance has been very poignant because of events in Afghanistan, which bring things home to us yet again.
But, despite all the waves of sympathy for soldiers who are dying in a controversial conflict, much of the language we use to define our responses is still that from the Great War.
At the special commemorative service in Westminster Abbey this week, Jeremy Irons read a poem written for the occasion by the new poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy – an impressive one, I thought. But it was shot through with echoes of Wilfred Owen’s verses from the First World War, as if we can never be free of that world-changing experience.
Why? There are many answers. You only have to look at the numbers of names on any war memorial to realise what a devastating effect the two world wars had on communities.
Major global events leave a mark, but often it fades quickly. The Millennium beacons, Trafalgar Day, now even Guy Fawkes Night in this country, seem to run out of steam or become forgotten. But the Cenotaph will long outlast the Millennium Dome.
War memorials stand in almost every community, down to the smallest villages. They weren’t always there. They were a response to the events of 1914-18 and 1939-45. Some, it is true, are not well tended, but the vast majority are lovingly cared for.
The most defining reason, I think, is that these were wars of the common man. They were not knights in armour and they were not imperial battalions in red. They were ordinary blokes in mud and blood. It is true that to begin with in 1914, people fell over each other in the race to join up, having no idea what they were in for.
But by 1916 conscription had came in, and a huge majority of those who died did not want to be there at all. That is a big difference. No one wants to be in harm’s way, of course, but so many of the tributes to those who have died in Afghanistan or Iraq have stressed how much they loved their jobs.
This is extraordinary courage, to actually offer yourself voluntarily to save other people. No one can deny that. But it is a choice.
Many of those who died in the World Wars had no choice. They may have had useful skills, or they may just have been people doing their best at something life had never intended them for.
In today’s world, where people are encouraged to ‘be themselves’ at whatever cost, and follow their own choices, it may be hard to understand why people meekly agreed to be lined up within an often incompetent organisation to be slaughtered in all probability, because the authorities told them to, or to give their today for someone else’s tomorrow.
But they did and, mistakes and atrocities notwithstanding, the end result was a lasting peace, at least in the West. And if, as Marshal Foch said of the deal over which he presided on November 11, 1918, that he feared it was not a lasting peace, but a 20-year Armistice within a continuing war, they did not die for nothing.
The world wars between them exposed an evil which had to be faced down, destroyed and, hopefully, learned from, to prevent another generation having to suffer a similar carnage.