It’s nearly a century since you signed up and went away to war, for a cause you may or may not have believed in. I can’t know whether you wanted to go, felt you had to go, or were coerced into going. Yet, a hundred years on, the war you and so many like you fought is woven into the narrative of my country’s past, into the freedoms I enjoy and the future I look forward to. I don’t know your nationality, or your religion. I don’t know whether you fought for my country, or against my country. I do know your life was taken away from you, in a terrible way, too soon.
You don’t know when the war ended, nor how it ended. You can’t know that each year in November, on armistice day, we mark the anniversary of the peace. Leading up to this remembrance we wear red paper poppies on our lapels, reminders of those that bloomed on the battlefields. Poppies love disturbed soil, and amidst carnage they flourished, their fleeting beauty activated in the churned up soil of war.
I’m a little ashamed to admit to you that when I was at school in the 1970s, I actively loathed the annual remembrance rituals which, in my inexperience, I took to be a glorification of war. I hated the lifeless paper poppies, the bugles, the uniforms and the parading. I’d read the poems of Wilfred Owen, another young man who didn’t return, and couldn’t buy the line, “Dulce et Decorum est…” How, I wondered, is it possible to celebrate something so vile, so futile, so inhuman as war?
To this day, I can’t use the neat vocabulary of remembrance. Words like “sacrifice”, “honour”, “patriot”, sit uneasily in my mouth. Yet, watching my own children grow, largely untouched by wars and their consequences, I’ve come to believe it’s vital we remember you and your companions, not just once a year, but ever in our consciousness, and our conscience. In our country we occupy the privilege of peace, and if we forget you, we forget how vulnerable, how fragile and how precious that privilege is.
I would I could tell you your war ended all wars war in Europe and beyond. But that would be untrue. It didn’t. My generation, in this corner of the globe, is fortunate to have been born and lived through peaceful times. Yet beyond, in Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Middle East, Africa, and beyond, war blots out countless young lives too soon. The Book of Job says “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards.” When I look around and ponder on our capacity for violence I wonder if it is more precise to say that man is born to conflict as the sparks fly upwards.
What I can tell you, truthfully, is that when I reflect on what you and your family lost nearly a century ago, it inoculates me against complacency. Though you are unknown to me, and I to you, I am grateful for your life, and humbled by your death.
I am forever in your debt,