Remembrance 2020 – who’s to know

The eleventh of the eleventh. Remembrance day falls on Wednesday in the coming week, and in theory in the late morning as the Cathedral clock strikes the hour the city should fall silent. Of course it won’t, because people have busy lives; cars have to be driven, buses and trains cannot have an unscripted stop, bin lorries and postmen are on a mission and the hurly burly of life must go on. Perhaps that’s quite right – after all the sacrifices that have been made in the past were made precisely so that we could all continue with our everyday lives in a country where justice, democracy and the rule of law are taken for granted. Peace and security are easy to get used to, and it’s only when our confidence is shaken that we remember how great a price they can have. That won’t be the case on Sunday I’m sure, in Central London, where despite the pandemic there will be commemoration and ceremony as the nation gives thanks for the service of many in wars at home and overseas. We, too, must do our bit. Salisbury Reds may not come to a halt but here in school there will be two minutes of silent contemplation at eleven on the morning of the 11th. We can all use that time to try to think how our own family may have been involved in past times of conflict. We have all been affected.

Remembrance as an official annual event began after the First World War, probably as a direct consequence of the founding of the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917. The Commission’s policy was to bury Britain’s war dead abroad, in cemeteries close to where they had fallen. In an approach that was fundamentally democratic, every soldier was to have his own standard grave with a plain and uniform headstone – whether he was a private or a general made no difference. And so, now, anyone can go to the sites of the Battlefields in continental Europe and connect personally with family members, at the same time as literally appreciating the sheer scale of the sacrifice. Row on row, the patterns of white headstones in a green landscape have a tremendous and lasting impact on everyone who sees them.

But of course at the time the idea of burying loved ones in foreign fields did not enjoy immediate popularity; it needed the backing of Winston Churchill, who was Secretary of State for War at the time, to push it through. He said (quite rightly in my view) that relatives would be consoled by the knowledge that even the humblest soldier would be remembered by name through periods so remote in the future that probably all other memorials of this time will have faded and vanished away. At the end of the previous century, in the Boer War, British soldiers were named for the very first time if they were killed in battle even though a mass grave was still their resting place. Thomas Hardy’s Drummer Hodge, a teenage soldier boy from Wessex, though swiftly buried by his comrades in the Veldt, at least had a name. Two decades later in the trenches a soldier’s passing would be marked in France and their name would be inscribed on a memorial back in their home village. Though the soldier’s graves may well be overlooked by strange-eyed constellations far from home, war – for the very first time – was getting personal.

We, too, have our own version of that personal record. In the Bishop’s Chapel you will have seen the memorial boards with a large number of names in different coloured print. Those names were drawn from the school magazines at the time, which listed those who were known to have died or were missing in action – from both world wars. All too often the editor of Wordsworth Magazine (a Bishop’s Boy presumably) would add a short biographical note, but it is difficult to know what those boys and men were really like, and what the world was like when they lost their lives. I am sure that in each case there are some historical records, letters, diaries and so on, but contemporary literature does more to resurrect the essence of such times. Hence the popularity of Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker, Vera Brittain and the contemporary war poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Keith Douglas, giving substance to what might otherwise be anonymity. So near, yet so far, and so many.

We are now far enough away in time from the Great War to develop a more sophisticated narrative around both it, and its place in history. It can now be viewed in many different ways; as part of a modern 30 year war that redrew the map of Europe; as the trigger for a succession of anti-colonial revolts, from Egypt to China, that rolled back European power across the world; as the start of a process of women’s empowerment that gathered momentum through the last century and is still with us. The war itself is more ambiguous in terms of why it started, its strategy and leadership and then the all-important ‘what happens now’ at the end. Wars that end with unqualified victory are always looked at in a different way, so the Second World War was Britain’s finest hour. The First World War does not share that same driven narrative. What is never in question however is the personal sacrifice that lies behind every headstone, every inscription on war memorials in Wiltshire and Hampshire villages, and every name carved onto those dark wood boards on the wall of the Chapel. The traffic and general hubbub of the modern world will barely pause for breath, but if we can we should all take time out to reflect on what has been done for us in years past, usually by people that we never knew…