Saturday, 8 November 2014

If Memory Serves

My memory has been on active service for the last 46 years that I am aware of. I know for a fact that my earliest memories go back to when I was two years old. Obviously, I don't remember everything from back then, nor most since, as that way madness would surely lie, but I have now reached a stage in life where I am less and less sure of my memories. I have passed out of a time in which I knew I was absolutely right, into a time in which I am far less certain; and the time will come when I shall be absolutely certain of things that didn't happen the way my memory presents them.

This is all private and personal, but it can affect nations too, and in this year of the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, our national memories are likewise complicated. We find the event being fought over. On the one hand, we have those saying we must cherish this time of "service for King and Country", celebrate bravery, and sacrifice, and duty, and patriotism. On the other, we have those who look at our foreign military adventures right now and wonder whether anything has actually been "remembered" at all. Didn't Victoria's Imperial army have three wars with Afghanistan and lose them all? And hasn't Blair-Brown-Cameron's just done the same?

We speak of them "laying down their lives", and "we shall remember them", but neither is really true. Most were conscripts; many of them spoke of doing their best to get away with their own lives, and not to fire a shot that would end anyone else's. When you listen to old soldiers talking about combat they eschew the language of bravery and heroism "there wasn't time to be afraid" they say. They did what they had to do - they were "only obeying orders". That was the defence that didn't wash for the Nazis at Nuremberg. And do we remember them? How can most of us, born long after those grim times?

The poppy field installed in the lawn of the moat at the Tower of London has been hugely popular - 4,000,000 people have seen it, they say, over four times the number of young men whose deaths are commemorated by it. But that war ended 96 years ago. My maternal grandfather, who died last year at nearly 93, served in World War II, but being born in 1920, knew only other people's memories of the one before. He said three of his uncles died in the Battle of The Somme alone. I have photographs of two of them, kindly-looking, innocent chaps, one almost forty and unmarried, the other more a boy. So, Pop grew up with his Grandma Evans grieving the loss of her sons. It didn't stop him enlisting before the second war even broke out. The perpetrator and victim of a disastrous wartime marriage, Pop came into our lives late; I grew up not knowing him and his family's story, as did my mother, his daughter. War exacts its human cost in many ways.

My other grandfather lost his oldest brother to the influenza epidemic that followed the Great War - he had travelled with the Royal Navy all the way to Australia, to die there in 1919. He had other brothers who enlisted and served, one who served in the Royal Navy for nearly thirty years, but it left him with an abiding suspicion of a country that will send young men needlessly to their deaths. When the second war came, he was exempt from service as he had his own business, and he did his level best to get other people out of war service. In my great-aunt's case, he got her out of military service she'd very much have liked to be in - anything rather than live with her family in dreary Battersea.

They say one of my father's cousins was killed in London during the Blitz. The dates fit, so it's probably true. But that's the extent of the blood cost of that war to our family - and no one alive remembers that cousin (she was a teenager). My father was only two when the war ended, and he too is dead now.

So, who, what, am I remembering? I sponsored (do I really just mean "bought"?) one of the poppies at the Tower, and am looking forward to receiving a piece of history in the post some time after the installation is harvested. I care deeply that 888,246 innocent young men died in that appalling war, for the British Empire alone, and nearly half a million in the next one. I care that there was a next one, despite all the suffering undergone by all parties the first time. And I care that British troops are still in service around the world - in my lifetime, in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq (twice), Libya, now Syria, and countless other peace-keeping missions for the UN.

It is not the sorrowing recollection of people I have known and loved. War has not touched my life in that way. It is history, but history with lessons to be learnt for the future.

If memory serves.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment