Perhaps it is because of my day job as a History teacher that I am more aware than most of the current hoo-ha over the commemoration of the First World War. History is very much a subjective discipline and we tend to edit and shape the narrative as much as any novelist to fit the prevailing attitudes of our times. But despite our best efforts to contruct over-arching themes and a “bigger picture” through which to view the past history is more often than not the story of people, of individuals – from Kings and Queens on high to the lowliest factory hand – they all have something to contribute to our understanding of the past and how it shapes our future. With that in mind I decided I would contribute to the Letter to an Unknown Soldier project. One thing I took away from a visit to Flanders this February was the human cost of war. Visiting the cemeteries, to see those beautifully maintained outposts of remembrance marking the site of so much death and destruction made the human tragedy of it all very real to me for the first time in my life. So here is my letter…
We didn’t forget. I just wanted you to know that.
Although the last of the men who marched with you to the front have now departed, the traces they left behind are still there to prick our consciences and remind us of the sacrifices you all made. I went to Flanders in February to see for myself the places where you and your mates fought and died in your millions and I think I finally understood it.
I was there with a group of school kids – some of them old enough to have joined up all those years ago and go marching off to the sound of the guns with you. We were in Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Grave in a country full of them, the largest in the world in fact – 12,000 graves in all. On their own those 12,000 graves are a lot to take in, but then you realise there is a memorial wall at the back of the cemetery carrying the names of thousands more – 35,000 sons, brothers, husbands, erased from the face of the Earth by high explosives or lost deep in the mud. I saw all those names and realised it was still only a fraction of all those who died.
There were tears in my eyes after I read them all. I’d see familiar names that I could associate with people I knew. I saw my own name and names of family members again and again until it was overwhelming. And as I walked through the rows at Tyne Cot, I saw your name repeated thousands of times more –A Soldier of the Great War another man whose identity had been lost in those four years of madness.
Sure I’d read all the books and watched all the documentaries where Historians reel off the casualty statistics to the point your mind gets numb trying to absorb them – but there at Tyne Cot you were people again instead of numbers in a book, real people with families, lovers and friends – each one with a story to tell.
So we didn’t forget you. The world you left behind has moved on in so many ways both for good and for ill since the first shots rang out in August 1914. We can argue about what it all means and whether the war was a good or bad thing but it won’t bring you and all those millions of others back to reclaim the lives you gave up.
But we can remember you, we owe you that much.