Memory is the strangest thing. I can’t remember when I was first told that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away”. It’s something I’ve always known. Growing up, OK, we were told of a hundred kings and queens, their wars, battles and allegiances, their victories and defeats. But they may as well have existed in Narnia for all the relevance they had to me. Real history was the two World Wars. It was the Great War that most stirred me up. The sheer pointlessness of it. The facts I learnt were suffused in helpless, uncomprehending anger at the scale of the suffering and appalling waste of life. And eventually I reached the conclusion that the First World War led to the Second. Evil arose out of tragedy. So why was what I prefer to call the Great War allowed to happen?
I am no longer so confident we have come through the fog of history to reach a place of wise clarity. Even if we understand the mistakes of the past we’ll simply find new ways of making them. Only future generations will see the parallels. Maybe, though, if reason fails, the right emotions will alert us before we step over the brink.
So now all I feel on 11th November each year is a deep sadness. I never dreamed how poignant it would be to see the final dwindling of the ranks of the First World War veterans. The war without purpose. A slaughter that, far from being “the war to end all wars”, merely sowed the seeds of the next. Today there were only three men left, all bearing wreaths as they were pushed in wheelchairs to the Cenotaph. Harry Patch is the last who remembers the trenches.
The true tragedy is that, as the numbers of combatants has diminished over the years, Harry’s wartime memories have become stronger. 90 years of daily recall have burned a path in his mind to the horror of Passchendaele, whilst thoughts of happier times are tainted with images of the War. It’s as if Harry has had to take on the burden for those who’ve faded away.
Let’s hope that in the years to come we are strong enough to take on Harry’s burden. If we allow the monuments to the Great War, and our memories to fade through disuse, then we will surely be fated to repeat the mistakes of the past.