The valiant hearts who bled for our freedom
ONE hundred years ago tomorrow morning, at 11 o’clock precisely, an unearthly stillness fell over the Western Front as the monstrous anger of the guns fell silent after what was up to then the most devastating war in history.
This Sunday, as Big Ben rings out the 11th hour over the Cenotaph in Whitehall, millions all over the country will mark that moment with a two-minute silence of their own.
In city churches, town squares and gathered around village war memorials, young and old alike will push the petty tribulations of the modern world to the back of their minds, as they reflect on the awesome courage and sacrifice of the fallen and the grief of those they left behind.
During that solemn silence, cares real or imagined, will be briefly forgotten – health and money worries, family tiffs, spats on social media, rivalries at work or rows about Brexit.
As every year on November 11 – though never more so than in this centenary year – all such concerns will be thrown into mocking perspective by memories handed down to us of the hell of the trenches and the fortitude of those who endured it.
True, such is the folly of mankind that the ‘war to end all wars’ proved no such thing. Indeed, just a generation later, the world was convulsed by a deadlier conflict still, while nations have fought wars ever since, right up to the present day in countries such as Syria and Ukraine. But none has brought home to the public’s imagination the horror of war more vividly than the industrialised slaughter of 1914-18, when hardly a family was left untouched by grief.
Most moving of all, the sheer character of those who fought shines out from their cheerful letters home. With very few exceptions, they shielded loved ones from knowledge of the daily torment they suffered from lice, rats, sludge, rotting corpses, the unimaginable terror of poison gas, shellfire and the whistle that signalled the order to face the machine guns over the top.
This was a generation stiffened with stoicism and driven by an unquestioning love of family, home and country – in the words of the great hymn, I Vow To Thee, My Country: ‘The love that never falters, the love that pays the price/ The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.’
To many of us, the young in particular, the Great War may seem like ancient history. But as the Queen’s presence at the Cenotaph tomorrow reminds us, there are many like her alive today whose fathers and uncles fought in it.
Even children now at school needn’t look far back in their family trees to find relatives who answered the call to arms for king, country and empire.
Indeed, this paper draws encouragement from the multitudes of young who have joined commemorations since the centenary of the war’s outbreak.
A century on, the nation’s collective memory shows no sign of faltering, kept alive as it is by the power of war poets such as Wilfred Owen and the searingly moving silent newsreels of the time.
Of course, tomorrow we will also be remembering those who gave their lives for us in more recent conflicts. But on this, of all Armistice Days, it is inevitable that our chief thoughts will be with those who died like cattle in 1914-18.
As we stand in silent remembrance, we should reflect on how lucky we are to be alive in history’s longest period of peace between Europe’s major powers – and how dangerous it would be to take that peace for granted.
Lest we forget, it was bought at a terrible price. We owe it to those valiant hearts who paid for it in their blood to treasure and guard it, and hallow their memory in the land they loved.