At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month I stand with head bowed, silent, remembering those friends – & members of our family – we have lost to the callous grip of conflicts past & present; & respecting those other brave souls who selflessly went before, to defend all our tomorrows.
A military career (for us, in the RAF) brings a harsh new perspective to the meanings of life, death, & war. The wars fought today are in many ways so very different to what was called the Great War: so much more clinical these days, with ‘precision’ bombing making the killing sound somehow less painful, less tragic.
But I recall the very real fear I felt as I learned about how “advances” in technology have made weapons so much more “efficient”: bullets that rip through the skin of first aircraft & then pilot, shearing as they do so to create ever more gaping, more terminal wounds. Of mines that can be scattered to activate themselves…that then sit; & wait; & detonate, with such force that they can blow a heavy vehicle into the air as if it was a mere child’s toy, let alone the damage to tender flesh & bone.
The mud, the blood, the death, the horror of World War One today lives on as a gaping wound in the minds of the only three surviving, brave British soldiers: Harry Patch (a veteran of Ypres & the last survivor of trench warfare on the Western Front – celebrating his 110th birthday today, he was unable to talk about his experiences in the War until he reached his centenary); Bill Stone (at 108 years old, the only man left alive to have fought & survived both the First & Second World Wars); & Henry Allingham (at a venerable 112 years of age, now the oldest man in Europe & the last surviving founding member of the Royal Air Force)….the finest gentlemen, you could wish to meet.
This was a war which – to the British Empire alone – claimed a staggering 3,049,972 casualties, of which 658,705 lost their lives. My Grandfather fought at Ypres; a modest Flemish market town on the Franco-Belgic border which saw some of the worst fighting of the war. It was described as being all the horrors of the Somme wrapped with the hell of Verdun.
The consequences were drastic with 500,000 dead in an area of 25km². In spite of the protocols of war which forbid such weapons, the Germans unleashed 160 tons of chlorine gas against the Allied troops – the first use of poison gas during the war – & although Grandfather survived he returned a changed man, deeply affected & unable to speak about the terrible things he had experienced. I shudder at the vividly grim description Wilfred Owen paints of the horror of a gas attack in the poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est”. For me there is the added horror that rather than realising how utterly disgusting & cowardly it is to gas fit young men ‘like rats in a trap’ rather than fighting a fair fight, many nations have developed & deployed even more deadly, similar weapons; designed to kill in the most painful & disgusting ways – even turning them against their own people. How can we be so heartless, when life is so short, so precious?
Now, my Grandfather was considered “one of the lucky ones” to have survived the horrors of Ypres – three of his brothers were also killed in battle; whilst another lost his life shortly afterwards, to a shrapnel wound. Similarly, my father lost two of his uncles; young, brave men in the prime of life…..what a tragic sacrifice.
When on 11th November 1918 – exactly 90 years ago – the guns fell silent with the signing of the Armistice between the Allied & German Armies, it was described as the “War to end all Wars” – a cold-comfort solace for the heroes who had fought; & for the families who had lost loved ones.
But when World War II broke out in 1939, the hope that such atrocities could never happen again, was shattered: inevitably the thing we learn – time & again – from history…is the painful irony that we never learn from history. 395,000 British Servicemen lost their lives during World War II – brave (& doubtless at times often terrified) souls, walking through the valley of the shadow of death to fight for our freedom. And it deeply affected those who lived through the war on the home front, too – something that “the youth of today” cannot possibly imagine: the fear of an air raid, scuttling to the shelters & wondering whether you’ll survive the night; & if you do, what will be left of homes, of friends, of shattered lives, in the morning….
And even after all the lessons of two World Wars, the fighting hasn’t stopped. 719 Service personnel were killed during the bloody Northern Ireland conflict which raged across the Emerald Isle from 1969 onwards. And we suffered 237 losses during the short but bitter battle for the Falkland Islands in 1982. Having spent time in that wild, windswept place – a world away from our cosy lives here in the UK – I visited many of the battle sites, which proved a real eye-opener as I don’t think many of us truly appreciate the utterly appalling conditions in which those Service personnel fought & in all too many cases, tragically died. And as a Logisitics Officer I was made painfully aware of the grave errors of the supply chain; & I vowed never to make either the same or similar mistakes, myself. Getting things right on paper for the accountants at Whitehall is all very well; however when clerical errors & administrative delays cost you the lives of your friends & colleagues who rely upon you, then it gets personal. And if you’re out ‘in the field’, working in appalling conditions on the receiving end, then it’s not just ‘inconvenient’ but incredibly morale-sapping, too: you’re out there risking your life & it seems that those whose very freedom you are fighting for, couldn’t care less.
In the First Gulf War of 1991 the burden of UK military casualties was mercifully light, with a loss of only 45 souls (although still 45 too many, of course). However in its own way this war claimed its’ own secret victims: as by this time weaponry – particularly airborne – had become so sophisticated that many of the aircrew dropping high-level bombs, focused simply on inanimate ‘targets’ & only later paused to count the cost of the lives they may have inadverently taken; whether soldiers or innocent civilians, caught up in the crossfire….it deeply affected many people who still suffer the scarring memories to this day.
And of course, we’ve since lost 121 military personnel in the increasingly-volatile Afghanistan conflict; & over 176, in Iraq’s Second Gulf War. Tony & I share many painful, private memories regarding those conflicts; but can at least have the crumb of comfort of being able to mutually sorrow over those secrets too emotionally wounding & at times angering, to share with others. But I would love to know what goes through the minds of the politicians who put our Servicemen & Women into such life-threatening situations when they make weighty decisions based on at best seemingly tenuous evidence & advice: there they stand at the Cenotaph; what are they thinking….?
To be honest we’ve lost too many friends now, not to feel more than a little (perhaps justifiably) cynical; “keeping the peace” seems a somewhat hackneyed phrase when nations descend into chaos as an apparent result of our well-meaning intentions. And what about those other nations, seemingly eternally in the grip of civil war? Of brutal child soldiers, of unbearable & unbelievable atrocities….which alas, are shockingly, all too tragically real. For too many people in too many places, life is a living Hell.
And so my mood is sombre & my tears, from the heart; & I recall the words, “why not me?” And then one day, an answer: “Keep these memories & pass them on, that the young may learn & remember.” And we are proud to have served those who put their faith in us & our comrades, that they might sleep safe at night.
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row….
Henry Allingham, one of those last brave survivors of the Great War, reflected thus:
“These hellish memories of war are ones I’d rather forget. But never my comrades. Never, the men who gave everything.”
Thus, lest we forget….
“For our tomorrow, they gave their today.”