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.