Wednesday, 3 November 2010

I will remember


I can picture it; I just can’t imagine it. The picture is easy: it’s Passchendaele, more formally known as the Third Battle of Ypres, fought on the Western Front through the summer and on into the early winter of 1917. It is possible to sympathise with the soldiers who fought over that grim ground, overwhelmed by a sea of mud and suffering. But to imagine it, to call it to mind; that’s different: that’s somehow to have been there, to hear the artillery pounding relentlessly day after day, to hear the screams of the wounded and to look into the eyes of the dying. My imagination is too limited.

My great-grandfather was there. He went straight from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst to serve in the British Second Army, mostly on the Western Front, until his corps was transferred to Italy in 1918. He was present at some of the great battles; at the Somme in 1916, where he was wounded, and at Passchendaele, in the water-logged trenches, in the slow advances on the German lines. For the courage and leadership in this terrible fight he was awarded the Military Cross, an achievement of which my family have always been immensely proud. Father still has it displayed in his study along with the citation, yellow now with age.


I think of him, think about what he and his comrades had to go through all those years ago, especially now, especially at this time of year as we approach Armistice Day, the anniversary of the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the day in 1918 when the guns stopped. It now serves as the British equivalent of the American Veterans Day, the day when we remember the dead of the First and Second World Wars and all wars since.

But it isn’t just about remembrance of the dead; it’s about extending support to the living, those who have fought in our wars, some of whom, due to the nature of their wounds, will need support for the rest of their lives. Every year the Royal British Legion launches an appeal on behalf of these people, on behalf of all of our service men and women, past and present. Those who contribute wear a red paper poppy, a token of remembrance and of thanks; a poignant reminder of the little flowers that grew in abundance in the fields of Picardy and Flanders, from ancient times a symbol of sleep, of death and of resurrection. It’s possible to make a donation either directly to the volunteers on the streets, or indirectly at www.poppy.org.uk

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

19 comments:

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  5. My grandfather received the wound that cost him his arm in that battle - having already survived the Somme. The seeds of the next great war were being planted there, while on the Eastern Front . . .

    And here we are, knowing what we know, but still sending troops across the world to kill and maim for . . . what? I simply cannot believe any more political lies, and it is hard for me to imagine what can possibly be gained from these costly squabbles.

    Here in the US, we wear poppies for Memorial Day. For Veterans' Day, forget-me-nots are sold to support the needs of disabled ex-soldiers.

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  6. My grandfather was a very odd casualty of war. He didn't die fighting at Busan, he came back alive, but he came back an alcoholic. When my mother was only 4 years old, he was driven out of the house, and was never seen again. He lived the remainder of his life, suffering from alcoholism and an unemployability due to his tendency to quit jobs quickly, on an Indian Reservation in Southern Colorado. He died about 20 years ago, never having seen my mother again.

    Oddly though, his extended family stayed a part of my mothers life, and she knew my grandfathers mother very well. My grandfathers mother actually spoke Gaelic, was from the Atlantic provinces of Canada. I don't think my grandmother ever really stopped loving my grandfather - when she got remarried, she did so for money, essentially marrying a Swedish industrialist as a trophy wife, 20-years-younger then he was, knowing that she could never love again, she respected him though and fulfilled her duties well, and acted in all ways honorable - and when my mother was thirteen, she went to Vancouver Island and bought her not only a kilt, but enough of the family plaid to make a suit, which she then had custom tailored for my mom, and my mom kept a picture of the clan castle in our kitchen for many years. She also remained forever fascinated with Native Americans, like those her father was living with.

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  7. Calvin, yes. The Iraq war will, I believe, be condemned by future historians as one of the most ill-conceived adventures in American and British history, worse, far worse, than Vietnam. Still soldiers are soldiers. They do their duty and all too often suffer the consequences for the stupidity of politicians.

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  9. Jeremy, what a sad story about your grandfather. The wounds of war truly do go deep.

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  10. I like this better

    When you go home
    Tell them of us and say
    For their tomorrow
    We gave our today

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  11. Spitfire, thank you. What I did not add is that my grandfather also served. He was with the 14th Army on that very campaign.

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