A WOODEN BOX’S STORY OF PAIN AND SAC­RI­FICE

Yorkshire Post - - FEATURES & COMMENT -

IN MY un­der­stairs cup­board is a roughly-made wooden box that con­tains a set of cen­tury-old cob­bler’s tools.

They are the only me­mento I have of my pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, and the ham­mer, the last, the knives and the awl for punch­ing holes in leather tell one small story of the Great War.

He was shot and badly wounded on the West­ern Front. His life was saved, but blighted. He could only stand or walk with the aid of crutches and was never free of pain. The coun­try he had been fight­ing for had lit­tle com­pas­sion, and no prac­ti­cal as­sis­tance to of­fer when he was brought home. Of­fen­sively to our sen­si­bil­i­ties to­day, he was termed a crip­ple.

He could not re­turn to his pre-war job as a miner, the pri­vately-owned pits had noth­ing else to of­fer a wounded exser­vice­man and there was no wel­fare state to help him, his wife, and four chil­dren, nor a health ser­vice to ease his pain.

So he bought the tools, knocked to­gether a box for them from some bits of wood he scrounged and scratched a mea­gre liv­ing mend­ing shoes, be­cause he could do that sit­ting down.

I never knew him. He died long be­fore I was born, his health fa­tally com­pro­mised by his wounds and his spirit ground down by end­less pain. Be­cause he sur­vived the war, his name

He’ll be in my thoughts to­mor­row, even though I have no means of sum­mon­ing up how he looked, how he spoke or any idea of his per­son­al­ity.

Re­mem­brance Sun­day al­ways makes me think of him, and won­der what he was like.

All over the coun­try, as peo­ple bow their heads at 11am, other peo­ple will won­der too about their own rel­a­tives, what they did, what they saw, how they suf­fered, and if they lived, how they coped af­ter­wards.

And to won­der is to hon­our their mem­o­ries, be­cause we are en­gag­ing with them. Even though, in many cases, a cen­tury or more sep­a­rates us from them, the gen­er­a­tion that fought the Great War are go­ing to seem pow­er­fully present to­mor­row.

The cen­te­nary of the Armistice has brought re­mem­brance more sharply into fo­cus than at any time for decades. Four years of som­bre, dig­ni­fied com­mem­o­ra­tions since 2014 have been build­ing up to this mo­ment.

Aware­ness of what the war in­volved, the sac­ri­fice of those who died and the mark it left on the lives of those who sur­vived has been height­ened, es­pe­cially amongst the young and that is some­thing of which our coun­try should be proud.

One of the most mov­ing things I have ever seen took place in the colos­sal Tyne Cot war ceme­tery and me­mo­rial to the miss­ing in Bel­gium last year, as the 100th an­niver­sary of the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele ap­proached.

A party of school­child­ren laid a wreath at the foot of one of the pan­els com­mem­o­rat­ing the fallen whose re­mains were never found in that hellish, blasted land­scape of churned mud and poi­son gas. Then they bowed their heads and wept.

There was no ar­ti­fice in their grief, no forc­ing the tears to come. The sheer vis­ceral im­pact of the loss rep­re­sented by the me­mo­rial, with its tens of thou­sands of names, had a pro­found ef­fect on the chil­dren.

A year be­fore, as Bri­tain pre­pared to com­mem­o­rate the cen­te­nary of the start of the Bat­tle of the Somme, there were sim­i­larly touch­ing trib­utes ap­par­ent at the Thiep­val Me­mo­rial to the Miss­ing. Pho­to­graphs and wooden crosses with pop­pies had been left along­side spe­cific names, and there were writ­ten trib­utes from schools.

Some were from York­shire, where the Somme holds a spe­cial, ter­ri­ble place in our col­lec­tive mem­ory be­cause of the slaugh­ter of the vol­un­teer Pals bat­tal­ions from Leeds, Brad­ford and Barns­ley on its first day.

The chil­dren could have no more ac­tual knowl­edge of th­ese men than I have of my grand­fa­ther, yet they cared enough to pay trib­ute to them. They had learned the value of re­mem­brance and the obli­ga­tion on us all to never for­get. A tremor of anx­i­ety has run through the past four years of com­mem­o­ra­tions, and it can be felt about to­mor­row’s cen­te­nary. It is that once this mile­stone an­niver­sary is past, the Great War will some­how be for­got­ten, and its sac­ri­fice not ad­e­quately hon­oured in the fu­ture.

We need have no wor­ries on that score. The chil­dren I saw in France and Bel­gium had learned a les­son in re­mem­brance that they will never for­get. In time, they will pass it on to their own chil­dren.

Adults have learned too. There are more peo­ple tour­ing the Great War bat­tle­fields now than at any time in the 30-odd years that I have been vis­it­ing them, and it is no­tice­able how many more fam­ily groups there are, gen­er­a­tions dis­cov­er­ing their col­lec­tive his­tory to­gether.

Books about the war sell in vast quan­ti­ties, and huge au­di­ences watch tele­vi­sion pro­grammes. At­ten­dances at Re­mem­brance Sun­day events have risen, and the num­ber of pop­pies the Royal British Le­gion sells in­creases ev­ery year.

Bri­tain has em­braced the im­por­tance of re­mem­brance ever more closely over the course of th­ese past four years. To­mor­row is a cul­mi­na­tion of that. It is also a prom­ise that we shall never, ever for­get.

Bri­tain has em­braced the im­por­tance of re­mem­brance as we hon­our the mem­ory of those who en­dured suf­fer­ing on the bat­tle­fields and back in civil­ian life.

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