LEST WE FORGET
Alan Cochrane hopes we continue remember the war heroes that fell during the world wars
Ican’t say I’ll be too sorry to see the back of 2018. As far as I was concerned, with the exception of Scotland beating England at rugby and cricket, it was a nothing sort of year. But there is one reason that I hope some of the events and memories of the year now passing will not be forgotten.
I’m referring to the ceremonies – no, make that memorials – that marked the centenary of the end of the First World War. Indeed, the whole of the last four years from 2014 onwards have been remarkable for the way in which almost the entire world, and certainly all of Europe, have commemorated the events and sacrifices of that appalling conflict.
And as someone who has made regular trips over past decades to all those battlefields what has struck me most forcibly has been not that the memory of that carnage is fading but quite the reverse. Untold crowds of people continue to pay homage to those who gave their lives by the million from 1914-1918, and what is perhaps most remarkable about all of those who stand in silent tribute at the monuments, cenotaphs and cemeteries which are dotted all over those Flanders fields, is their age.
There is obviously nobody alive today who fought in those battles – but it is their grandchildren and, more likely, their great-grandchildren who are there every week of the year in truly amazing numbers to acknowledge the price their forebears paid all those years ago.
That children of school age can see for themselves what men not much older than themselves lived and died through, in the most appalling of conditions, 100 years ago is to my mind the best way to teach history. The French, British, Belgian, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand governments, aided and abetted by the magnificent Commonwealth War Graves Commission, have gone to extraordinary lengths to tell us what really happened. And in saying this, I shouldn’t forget to say that the huge German cemeteries - with their rows of black iron crosses - should also be on every battlefield tour itinerary, spelling out how grievous were the losses suffered by that country too.
To witness the sunset ceremony at the Menin Gate, in Ypres – ‘Wipers’ to my grandfather – is an intensely moving occasion, still witnessed by hundreds, even thousands, every night. And whilst the 60,000 names of the dead and missing inscribed on its walls are mostly of British and Commonwealth soldiers, it is Belgian firemen who sound the Last Post on their bugles and who, I am sure, will continue to do so for many years to come.
Or will they? It is this last issue that gives me some cause for concern. Will the end of 2018 signify that we’re finished with the First World War? After all we’ve had elaborate and stirring ceremonies to mark the various centenaries. We began by marking the start of the war when the ‘lamps were going out all over Europe’, according to Sir Edward Grey.
And then, one after the other, the 100-year anniversaries of the great battles occurred – the miracle of Mons in 1914; the butchery of the Jocks at Loos in 1915, which is still remembered every year with a ceremony on the Dundee Law; the First Day of the Somme on
1 July 1916, when 20,000 perished; the attack by 40-odd Scottish battalions at Arras in 1917; and not ever forgetting the various Battles of Ypres, the last of which was also named Passchendaele, a name that still strikes awe and revulsion in the hearts of many and in equal measure because of its horrific squalor.
I’m about to begin a pilgrimage to Amiens where the last German offensive was halted in 1918 and from where the battle which presaged the end of hostilities began. As I write, the ceremony to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month will be well advanced for this year’s service and parade at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. But marking as it does the centenary of the day the guns at last fell silent it will take on a special significance – November 11 falls on a Sunday this year.
Some 10,000 people – descendants, family members, the general public, as well as servicemen – will take part in the marchpast, while bells will be rung all round Europe as a thank you to those who died (in the apogee of naffness, the government is already calling it the ‘People’s Procession’).
I do hope, however, that this will be not be the last of our memorials to the fallen of all those years ago. Those who, in Wilfred Owen’s words, ‘died like cattle’ deserve to be forever in our minds if only in the hope that it doesn’t happen again.
“Those who ‘died like cattle’ deserve to be forever in our minds