When I was at high school back in the 1970’s, we studied the First World War, as part of our English course – reading the War Poets, performing Oh What A Lovely War. Some of us interviewed veterans of the First War and wrote up pieces about their experiences. We almost all had grandparents living, who remembered the First World War.
No one taught us about the First or Second World War in history, although we had teachers who had fought in the Second World War and parents who lived through it as teenagers. It was probably thought of as being too recent.
My husband had a great uncle killed in France in 1918. He was nineteen years old, and was killed just weeks before the end of the war.
So I guess that for us, we grew up with close personal connections to both conflicts.
Earlier this year, on our way to Paris, we stopped off at war grave where my husband’s great uncle is buried at Vis-En-Artois. It is a relatively small cemetery, but we walked every row of neatly tended grave stones, ending at the memorial which commemorates the 9,000 men who have no known grave. It took over an hour.
It was one of the most moving, and heart-breaking experiences I have ever had. So many men – most very young indeed. Despite the fact that we had grown up knowing our family histories, we were incredibly moved to walk on the ground where those poor men, mostly boys, fought and died. This is where history reaches out and grasps you.
As time passes, we are moving from remembering our close relatives and family stories and into reflection on the enormity of what went on in those conflicts. The sheer scale of deaths is something that I hadn’t truly appreciated until we walked through one small cemetery, reading each name, imagining how many people had been affected by each separate death.
I’m glad that through the internet, more and more people are keeping the memory of their family’s loved ones alive – recording details of those short, heroic lives. I hope Remembrance Day continues to be respected and above all, I hope we never repeat the great tragedy of world war.