I am writing this after an act of remembrance in our little town centre. It was a large turn out this year, perhaps because Afghanistan and those in danger there were at the forefront of peoples minds. Filey is a retirement town and many of those around the memorial gardens also had memories of other wars. There has only been one year since the end of the second world war when no British lives were lost in conflict. I also have a long memory, even though I am a bit younger than many of those who were there this morning, and this is why I will be back there in a few days time to commemorate armistice day, the day when the biggest slaughter of a generation of men that has ever been seen finally stopped. Great efforts were made to mark the passing of each of the men who died, whether at the front or afterwards on one of the war memorials which scatter our towns and villages, but this did not prevent Wilfred Owen‘s words being horribly true. “What passing bells for those who die as cattle?” I stand there each year and think of him.
When I was a child the elderly men who stood around the memorial in my village were those who had come through that carnage. My grandfather was one of them. Each armistice day (and that is most definitely what it was for them) he would shine his boots and his medals (discs to make eyes close, Owen said) and put on his best black coat and hat. The old Haig Fund poppies came in pairs in those days, they had silk petals and foil stems, delicate and pretty. Each year a new one would be bought and kept pristine for the day itself. His friends would arrive at our house and they would sit together sharing memories, all ready in good time because the thought of being late was intolerable. It was the only time that there was any talk of the first world war in our house, even though a huge black and white photo of my grandfather and his comrades had pride of place in the front room, along with an engraved artillery shell. Nobody went into that room for the first time without that shell being pointed out. He claimed that he had stolen it from a German officer and I believe him. He only went abroad once in his life and that was to fight on the Western front, looking after the horses in his Royal Artillery battalion who worked alongside the men and died in their tens of thousands. What their suffering must have done to a dedicated horseman I can only guess. He never spoke about it and being young and foolish I never asked.
The act of remembrance itself has changed little since then. Today the vicars surplice still flapped in the wind, the legion flags were dipped, the words of remembrance were spoken and the trumpeter played The Last Post and Reveille under a clear blue sky. It was a heartfelt and romantic scene, as far removed from the chaos and suffering of war as could be imagined, perhaps an attempt to make sense of something which is essentially wasteful, tragic, and senseless. Those touched personally by the sufferings of war have to fight to believe that there is a meaning in their suffering in order to carry on.
We used to sing a beautiful old hymn, O Valiant Hearts:
“O valiant hearts who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.”
Somehow I managed to believe that sentiment alongside Owens bitter and more truthful version, when he calls “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (it is sweet and right to die for your country) “the old lie.” I did this for my grandfather’s sake, and I still do. He spent the rest of his life remembering his one trip abroad and as long as I am here I shall stand in his place each Armistice day even if it is Owen’s words rather than the comforting sentiment of a hymn in my heart. He would want me to.