By Tom Tansey
Through the medium of that wonderful thing called Facebook (go on, have a go!), I recently read a message from an old work colleague;
someone in her early 30’s, I guess, who was worried about the state of the world. This is what she wrote, writing about herself…
‘When she was at school, learning about the World Wars, she used to think about all the beautiful men that died, everyday she opens the paper & history is repeating itself over & over again, will it ever end?’
I was quite moved by my friend’s thoughts and sought to reassure her. This is how I replied…
‘Each and every one of those lives matters as much as any ever did, but when we speak about WW2 for example, we’re talking millions of those beautiful young men; over 50 million to be accurate. In WW1 on a bad day, one single day, 20,000 British soldiers died. Like I say, each and every death matters, but it’s the scale that counts. History is not repeating itself and thank God for that.’
My point behind writing about this little e-dialogue is twofold. Firstly, it is right and proper and indeed encouraging that she and her generation remember those who died in the World Wars and secondly, today with British soldiers dying in Afghanistan, and with Remembrance Day arriving this month, it is perhaps worth reflecting on how we remember the war dead and war casualties.
I am aware that the Costa Cálida Chronicle has many non-UK readers, especially from northern Europe and I acknowledge that this article comes from a very British perspective of the World Wars, not a partial perspective favouring one nation rather than another, but one which seeks to understand the British perspective on war and in particular the remembrance of war.
When one thinks of remembering the wars of 1916-1919, 1939-1945 and other wars, one often thinks of the Poppy, the Poppy Appeal and Remembrance Day (11 November). For my generation, we also think of our parents and grandparents who sacrificed so much, especially in the Second World War. I am 46 and whilst I have witnessed my country of birth at war, I have never had to endure conscription or national service and for that I am thankful. I have a photograph on my desk of my father in his Navy uniform, then aged only 17, as he joined the armed forces in 1941. He was lucky and so was my family, as he survived the war and is a sprightly 85-year-old, still harassing his turf accountant on a near daily basis, but for me and now my children, this image of a boy in uniform is our way of remembering the wars every day.
One of my kids asked me some time ago, ‘Did Grandad kill people during the war?’ and so I tried to explain what war is, what soldiers do and about right and wrong. She and her sister have a natural curiosity about such matters, fuelled by films and television and the experiences of their grandparents and so both my wife and I have tried to give them a balanced and accurate portrayal of the rights and wrongs of wars. Just recently, over the summer, I introduced them to the joys of my Blackadder DVD box set, (which they loved), and in particular, the final series, Blackadder Goes Forth set in the trenches during World War 1. In the final scene, before Blackadder and his fellow soldiers ‘go over the top’ to certain death, Baldrick tries to offer his captain a final ‘cunning plan’ to avoid their inevitable and senseless demise. Blackadder’s closing lines are both moving and pertinent: –
‘Well, I am afraid it will have to wait. Whatever it was, I am sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman around here? Good luck, everyone.’
For my family, we have used television and indeed comedy to remember that wars can be just and right, but also that throughout history they have been bloody, horrific and often utterly futile.
Books are, of course, an essential way to remember our war dead, and to understand the nature of war. About six months ago, as a family we read together ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne, a novel about Germans and the Holocaust, from the point of view of a nine-year old boy, Bruno who is growing up in Berlin during WW2. This book is aimed at children and at introducing the atrocities of wars and specifically the holocaust to children through the eyes of a fictitious child. I recommend it to adults and children alike. It provided for my kids the chance to compare and contrast the differences between WW1 and WW2 and another chance to remember.
Learning about and remembering the ‘great’ wars, was something about which, as a boy, I had little choice. My dad fought in WW2 and my grandfather in WW1, and whilst neither was ‘gung ho’ on war tales, their medals and photos were around the house, and my mother would tell us tales of being an evacuee as a child. In the 70’s (remember, only 25 years after the end of WW2), there was a plethora of war films, which I disliked, and some wonderful war documentaries on TV, which I loved. The World at War was one such documentary and I remember the impact this epic series had on me as a 10 year old (the age of my oldest daughter now), as the whole family sat down to learn together. My concern about my kids is that their generation will not know about, understand or remember these momentous historical events, which shaped Britain and Europe and so I seek out opportunities for us to talk about them and learn together.
Music and poetry have long been used to remember war and the casualties of war, whether it be my O’level war poetry of Owen and Sassoon, or the folk songs of writers such as Eric Bogle, which I learned as a youth. Here Bogle in ‘No Man’s Land’ makes reference to the poppy and the death of a young man, Willie McBride in the First World War.
Remembrance Day gives us another opportunity to remember with or without your poppy. The poppy has long been recognized as the symbol of remembrance in the UK and this stems from the images of poppies in the battlefields of Flanders Fields in Belgium, especially around Ypres, the scene famous for bloody battles from WW1. In addition to its symbolic importance, the Poppy Appeal raises funds for the work of the Royal British Legion, which undertakes welfare work with ex-service people. Going back to my grandfather after the First World War, the story goes that he ‘sold’ his ‘invalid’ pension back to the Army, thus foregoing a lifelong weekly payment for a pittance of a ‘lump sum’. This lump sum was soon spent and the disability caused by his active service during the war meant he never worked regularly until his death 50 years later and so the family only survived on the graft of my grandmother and handouts from the Church and the British Legion. Back then, the welfare work of the Legion was the difference, for my dad and his siblings, between being fed and clothed and not and today the Legion has a heavy caseload of ongoing War Disablement Pension cases for war veterans, as well as supporting CivvyStreet, a source of information, advice and guidance for Armed Forces leavers.
However, the red poppy is not without its controversy, as some consider it divisive and too closely associated with a militaristic celebration, so much so that some choose to wear a white poppy. In more recent times, some have felt an increasing pressure to wear the poppy, or be branded unpatriotic and TV newsreader Jon Snow described this as ‘poppy fascism’. I’m not sure about ‘poppy fascism’, but I think it is important that we have the freedom to wear and the freedom not to wear without fear of judgement from either party.
Of course, right now in Spain, we are seeing a new generation who reject the notion that the past is better left undisturbed. In the mid 70’s, during the Spanish transition to democracy, a national consensus emerged that the atrocities that took place on both sides during the civil war and those of a ‘state sponsored’ nature after Franco came to power should be forgotten.
Despite the efforts of this younger generation, this ‘pact of forgetfulness’ is still taboo and some fear that to break it, may put the stability of the state at risk. It is the view of this writer that to forgive the abuses of others, one must confront them and never forget them.
Whether it be wearing your poppy or chatting to your kids or grandkids, let us not forget. Rather, let us remember and learn.