Saturday 16 November 2013

Remembrance: by Sue Purkiss

It's that time of year again.

Remembrance. Remembering. As I've written before on this blog, my father, like most of his generation, fought in the war. Well, he didn't do all that much fighting; he was taken prisoner on the way to Dunkirk. Years later, he would watch Remembrance Day parades, the Royal Military Tattoo and suchlike with a slightly sardonic glint in his eye, shake his head, and say: "Why do they want to remember it? Why can't we just forget ?" It was understandable. He'd had what he called 'a bad war'. His memories didn't link up with the smart uniforms, the well-phrased speeches.

He was not alone. It's a well-known phenomenon that many soldiers don't wish to speak of their experiences. As far as possible, they want to forget. But they can't. They can suppress them, but often the memories rise to the surface in old age; this happened with Harry Patch, the 'last surviving Tommy', who only began to speak of his experiences in the trenches when he was over a 100. It happened with Felix Weinberg, who only recently wrote a memoir, Boy 30529, (which I reviewed here last month) about his experiences in the concentration camps; he saw no reason to speak about what had happened to him till he was an old man - he was determined not to be defined by what had happened to him. It happened with Eric Lomax, who was a prisoner of the Japanese. His suppression of his memories caused him great emotional difficulty, and it was only when he faced up to them with the help of Amnesty International, and even went to meet one of his former guards, that he found a measure of peace. (He wrote about this in The Railway Man.)

Earlier this year I went to visit the battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders. We were based in Ypres, and we went a couple of times to the Menin Gate to hear the last post. If I'm honest, I found the experience a little disappointing. I had imagined the gate looking out over a plain, with a few observers standing in a circle round the trumpeter - I think I must have seen this painting, by Will Longstaff, with its drifts of ghostly soldiers, and based my expectation on that. Instead, the archway is in the centre of the town, with a busy road running through it. This is closed off for the ceremony, and the space under the arch is crammed with people, so that all you can really see is other people's heads. But when you look at the names inscribed on the archway afterwards, and take in the fact that there are 54,896, and these are only the names of those British soldiers with no known grave who were killed between 1914 and 15th August 1917: then something of the scale and nature of the slaughter begins to reveal itself, and the experience is both sobering and moving.

Siegfried Sassoon, with the anger of the survivor, did not respond to the gate in that way. This from his poem, On Passing The New Menin Gate:

Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.

But of course these reminders are not principally for the participants. They're for the rest of us. And they're so important. Surely, the more of us they bring to see the horror of war, the more chance there is that we will do everything we can to avoid war in the future - or that's the hope, even if it sometimes seems a vain one. 

Flanders is littered with cemeteries - all beautifully kept by the War Graves Commission - and with museums that tell the story of those days incredibly well - particularly the recently re-done Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres itself. Here are just a few pictures.

A small cemetery in Ypres; a little later in the summer, these flowers must have been beautiful.

I hope you can read these words, from the museum at Tyne Cot Cemetery.

These figures were in one of the few German cemeteries; the Belgians were less generous with their grants of land to the vanquished, and so here there were far fewer individual graves. The stonework was dark grey, as opposed to the white stone of the Allied graves. 

Finally, a personal remembrance. During the war, my father palled up with a softly spoken Hampshire lad called Eric Shepherd. Shep, as Dad called him, had an astonishing way with animals - even the fiercest dog could be gentled by him, a gift that must have come in very handy when the prisoners had the chance to 'liberate' food! He was a lovely man, and he died last week, aged 93. Rest in peace, Shep.


Petrea Burchard said...

Until recently I knew next to nothing about the first war and even now I know very little. I've just begun reading Virginia Nicholson's "Singled Out," about the "surplus women" who found themselves without men to marry after the war. At a time when marriage was thought to be a woman's destiny, it was devastating. Other countries lost many men as well, but nothing like England's losses. I don't think there's been anything else in history to match it.

alberridge said...

Thanks for a great post, Sue - and such an important one.
You put your finger on it, I think - that remembrance is not for them, but for us. It's for the bereaved and their descendants, but also for the whole of society to stop congratulating themselves on past victories but start acknowledging their terrible, tragic human cost.
If only a few more politicians would absorb that message, then maybe things would be different...

Alison said...

Lovely post. Sobering and moving indeed. Thank you.

Joan Lennon said...

Poignant - thank you.

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