I wonder can you hear me across the years. I long to reach out to you. The soldier who gave so much. Your life, your future, all that you would have been. The children you did not have – or never knew – the wife or lover you left behind, and the families and the friends who grieved for you and missed you.
Who were you? How old were you? Did you lie about your age? Did you hasten to join up, afraid you would “miss the show” before it was “all over by Christmas”? Or were you a regular soldier, an Officer perhaps. Or a hard bitten Sergeant, standing no nonsense from a bunch of raw recruits. Maybe you were mentioned in dispatches, maybe even got a medal for gallantry. Or were you one of those thousands, mown down like a swathe of corn as you “went over the top” at the Somme. Because of course it wasn’t over by Christmas. It went on for four long hopeless years. Perhaps you were conscripted in 1916 – the war had long since lost its appeal by then hadn’t it. Were you one of the wounded who got a “Blighty” back home to England to recover, before being sent back to the hell of the trenches.
Trenches. Filled with mud and water, rodents and lice. Terrible food, cold and wet. The unceasing, earth shattering noise of shellfire that drove you mad. The frightening effect it had upon you when your body shook so much you could not stand, and yet the doctors said you were malingering. Or were you finally driven so mad by it all that you could no longer go on, did they charge you with cowardice in the face of the enemy and summarily Court Martial you? There only ever was one verdict for that, wasn’t there. Guilty. Sentenced to death by firing squad.
You were NOT a coward, I want to tell you that. You were wounded, mentally and emotionally, as surely as if you had been physically wounded by an enemy bullet.
I wish I could say that your life helped to finally end all wars, but of course it didn’t. Less than a generation later children who had seen their fathers go to fight, were themselves marching to war.
In spite of that your sacrifice was not wasted. Whilst ever more efficient ways of killing were invented, the impetus of the war also meant that many advances were made for the good of mankind – particularly in medicine, which a century on, we continue to benefit from. I understand you could not possibly be aware of any of this, probably all you wanted was for it to be over and to get back to the life you lived before the world changed for ever, one hundred years ago in 1914. But I thank my Unknown Soldier for what he gave and the sacrifice he made.