Colin Blumenau talks Remembrance Day

The service taking place in Royston

The service taking place in Royston - Credit: Archant

Colin’s Blumenau look at the week’s news

… about when the horrors of the past are consigned to the annals of history. This is germane, of course, because of the recent Remembrance Day commemoration events and the news that Royston raised £16,000 to help the Royal British Legion.

I happened to be in France when, last Monday, they preferred to commemorate the Armistice signed between the Allies of the World War I and Germany at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. We stood in the pouring rain of a uniformly grey Normandy morning as local dignitaries honoured the dead who gave everything for their country and the band banged and pooped its way through the Marseillaise. It was a sombre event made grimmer by the weather, the musicianship and the reminder that the flower of Europe’s manhood perished in the sloughs of trench mud made bottomless by meteorology of exactly this kind.

As I looked around the gathered assortment of people I wondered if the poignancy and relevance of this little piece of remembrance has been in anyway diminished by the recent deaths of the last combatants of that War to end all Wars. With their passing and their first-hand experience, has that piece of experience turned into something to which no other individual can lay claim? Has their sacrifice now become an historical event that can only be related at second-hand or in the pages of history books?

I turn to Laurence Binyon’s poem written in 1914:

They shall grow not 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.

The suggestion that we will never forget is comforting. The appalling slaughter of millions of lives was of such seismic proportions that we like to believe it will be forever present in our consciousness and, because of that, we would never permit the world to transgress in such a way again.

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But the poem’s sentiments are constantly disproved by experience. World War I was followed a mere 30 years after its conclusion by worse carnage. And the 20th century was littered with other wars. Our direct involvement in Aden, in the Falklands, in Iraq, in Bosnia, in Afghanistan is testament to the fact that not only do we forget once the survivors have lived out the course of their natural lives, but that we refuse to learn the lessons of those conflicts.

At school, if we are lucky, we learn about the fall of Troy, the Holy Roman Wars, the Wars of the Roses, the glorious triumphs of Agincourt and Waterloo or the mad bravado of the Charge of the Light Brigade. We are taught facts and dates just as if there was no real human damage. We do not feel the pain of the victims of battle nor do we highlight the sadism or carelessness of their leaders who condemned them to a, no doubt, painful and wasteful death. Time distances the horror.

Year after year we don our poppies and commemorate lest we forget. And it must be right that we do so. Even if we are flawed, even if we are unable to carry out our intention to keep the memory of the fallen with us at all times, we must try and keep the past alive as the annals of history beckon. Once it is consigned to the history books its immediacy is distilled and becomes a fascination for academics.

Soon, the participants from World War II will be with us no longer. With them will go their testimony. Though it will continue to live vicariously in the hearts and souls of their nearest and dearest, with their passing in turn, it will slip away to join the history of the forgotten souls of those who sailed with Nelson or rode Hannibal’s elephants.