Yesterday—Remembrance Sunday—at the eleventh hour of the nearest Sunday to the eleventh day of the eleventh month, senior members of the Royal Family did what the nation expected of them. If they were concerned about any terrorist threat to the ceremony they displayed no outward signs. Bearing in mind their respective ages, Brenda and Phil deserve the utmost respect and happily I think that mainly they get it. Most of us could benefit from following their example. The famed British stiff upper lip seems to have been replaced by a quivering lower one and an outstretched hand, demanding compensation for some real or, more usually, imagined injustice.
A sobering thought — I doubt that there are now many, if indeed any, alive today who actually knew a relative who was killed in the Great War. Of course Remembrance Sunday is not just about the First World War but this year being the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of that conflict, it was natural that most of the media attention was focused on it. In the UK there have been many programmes of an educational nature, both on television and radio.Generally these have focussed on the human cost of that, and other, wars. Unfortunately, that focus has mainly been on the families of those killed and not on the actual survivors of the conflict. To be sure, mention has been made of the great improvements in medical care over the elapsed one hundred years. Several survivors of the conflicts in the Gulf and Afghanistan have stood resolutely magnificent on two prosthetic legs and pointed out the difference in the way that society treats them and how those crippled in previous conflicts were hidden away. Apparently women were known to have fainted in the street when confronted with the reality of war. Perhaps some of them pushed their men into volunteering or perhaps that was a myth—although contemporary accounts do speak of white feathers and the like. Myth or fact, there was a lack of understanding of the reality of modern war. We should not mock or belittle those who volunteered out of patriotism or a sense of adventure and not criticise those who cajoled them into volunteering; the generals had little notion of the nature of the war that was to come either. Professional soldiers rather than the stereotypical buffoons of satirical literature and film, in many instances their instincts were right but the technology of the time was not up to the job. Today we tend to forget that when the brave working class lads went over the top they were led by the Eton toffs—who were usually the first to be killed. That in itself is of course a stereotype; quite possibly there were as many university graduates in the ranks as there were among the officers. British society was changing before the outbreak of the First World War, notwithstanding the picture that Downton Abbey paints. It is quite possible that the conflict actually slowed social change rather than accelerating it, but that is another discussion for another day.
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the Sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
These stirring words come from an otherwise mawkish poem– ‘For the Fallen’– written by Robert Laurence Binyon in 1914, after the battle of Mons. The poem was published by the Times newspaper on 21st September of that year. Then as now the media never misses a trick when it comes to boosting audience numbers and the hell with balanced, accurate reporting.
It’s all very well, laudable even, to remember the dead but let us not forget the wounded who come back. Today, we take pretty good care of the physically wounded but what about those who have been left mentally crippled? A good friend who has recently retired from the Prison Service tells me that there are many, too many, ex-servicemen in British prisons. Yes they have committed crimes but in the main because they did not receive adequate psychological help on their return. It is entirely possible that the same applies to servicewomen as well but my friend served in a prison for men. I can do no better than to quote an ex-para I met in Australia, out of the army for many years but still suffering from PTSD. They taught me how to kill but when they had no further use for me they didn’t teach me how not to kill.
It is a national disgrace. Never mind the dead, they are beyond our help– remember the living.