How on earth should one do it? How should the centenary of the end of a war be marked? Not just any war — the Great War. A war which involved almost every country and resulted in millions of deaths. As we approach the 100th eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the answer is that we will mark its end in many different ways. This year 11 November falls on a Sunday, so the main remembrance events must all happen on one day. A gentleman’s agreement in Europe had been that each nation would mark it in their own way on their own soil. However President Macron has invited his fellow leaders to join him in Paris. Awkward. Does one snub one’s own country or the French? No doubt elegant solutions will be found.
In 1918 two American troopships sank off the Scottish island of Islay, the second in October, almost within sight of the Armistice. The islanders bravely rescued those they could and collected the bodies of the drowned. The women decided the dead should be buried under their national flag, perhaps thinking how they would like their sons or husbands to be buried if that was their fate. Someone found an encyclopaedia that showed what the Stars and Stripes looked like and the women sat up late into the night sewing a huge flag from what materials they could find. The story made a deep impression in the USA. When some of the bodies were repatriated after the war, the flag went with them and was kept by the Smithsonian. A kind American benefactor paid for it to be brought back for the very moving centenary event — a form of remembrance that pays tribute to a simple act with huge resonance.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, of which I am vice chairman, tends the graves or memorials of 1.7 million dead from the two world wars in 153 countries. In a few places our cemeteries are difficult or dangerous to get to, and very occasionally they suffer accidental or deliberate damage. There we wait for a lull and rebuild. For the most part, we are treated with respect and in many cases deep affection. The first chairman, Winston Churchill, said in Parliament in 1920 that the graveyards will be an abiding memorial as far ahead into the future as the Tudor period is behind us. We have just completed our first 100 years and are well set for the next 220.
Why is it important to remember? First, to honour those who gave their lives, whatever their motivations for going to war, their nationality, colour, courage — or lack of it. Secondly, to act as a visual reminder to current and future leaders of the human cost of war. Though war may sometimes be necessary to defend against a greater evil, our rows of headstones, with their haunting inscriptions, should make people pause before taking such a step.
What do children think of it all? The charity Never Such Innocence, of which I am president, provides briefing packs for schools and holds an annual competition of poems, songs and artwork. Through this, the children have their say, and it is important that we listen. The competition, now in its fourth year, has produced some incredibly poignant and thought-provoking work. Marat Bilalov, a prizewinner in the 9-11 age group, describes the poppy:
Petals stained a bloody red
The tears that many mothers shed…
A poisoned stud so small and black
Our loved ones never welcomed back
We are forever in their debt
A field of souls lest we forget
On Wednesday this year’s winners and runners-up had tea at Buckingham Palace. They richly deserved it.
Sunday for me will begin at the Cenotaph, watching the Queen lay a wreath as she has done for 65 years. The silence as she does so is intense, almost overwhelming. Uniquely, Her Majesty will be accompanied by the President of Germany. Our two countries were once enemies but are now friends. Reconciliation is much more important and powerful than the bitterness that precedes it.
Then to Horse Guards Parade where the Princess Royal will take the salute from tens of thousands of representatives of veterans’ organisations. On a previous occasion, a proud veteran commanding a platoon gave the order ‘Eyes Right’ and flicked his head so smartly to starboard that his false teeth fell out. They were rescued by an observant policeman and returned to him later. In the afternoon to Glasgow cathedral for the main Scottish commemoration, and on in the evening to Edinburgh for the final performance of Far, Far From Ypres — a musical reflection on war and its impact. In these ways, and in so many others, will we pay tribute to those whose sacrifice helped give us the freedoms we today enjoy.
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