My Great Grandfather was born in 1895. In 1914, when he was nineteen, he joined the Royal Field Artillery, and was in France early that Autumn. He was at Loos, Hohenzollern Redoubt, the Somme, and Passchendaele. He fed his guns at Cambrai, Arras, and the Hindenburg line. In December 1918, he rode with his limber as it crossed the Rhine into Cologne, and he stayed there with the Army of Occupation. He came home with the 1914 Star, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal. That’s the bare bones of his war.
He also went from a slim teenager with his life ahead of him to a muscle corded soldier with a lined face at 24. He struggled to sleep in a bed, eat off a plate, and settle back into daily life. Years later, when he was an old man and dementing, he broke down when he found himself in the presence of a University Student dressed as Field Marshal Haig, as he was unable to escape the memory and deeds of the man he saw as responsible for the butchery of an entire army. “That bastard killed my friends.” There’s no glory in that.
Over the past week or so, there has been a ‘debate’ within the university about how we should remember conflict. Well – to call it a debate is perhaps a little strong. It has had shades of a confected controversy; of student politicos designing motions they cannot lose – if the motion passed, they won, if it was voted down, they got notoriety – and gleefully piling into the resulting storm. We have seen Piers Morgan shout down a member of the Peace Pledge Union on national television; we have seen CUCA members use racially charged language to describe Japanese people, and fall into a cheap caricature of warfare in which history is the stuff of a Commando comic or the sort of film shown on Sunday afternoons on satellite TV. We have seen a Tory MP (Nigel Evans) talk of Cambridge students as being “sad and ungrateful… pathetically wrong”. Most jarringly, we have seen Far-Right groups threaten to march in Cambridge on Remembrance Weekend. This has not been a ‘debate’ – it has been a coordinated pile-on by elements of student politics and the media in order to fit a media narrative of “snowflake students”, and to claim ownership of the act of Remembrance.
As submitted to CUSU Council, the motion only remembered “British veterans.” Warfare does not just impact the soldiers – it impacts their families, and their countries at large. To only remember the veterans is to ignore the thousands who died in the Blitz; it is to ignore the Merchant Seamen who died on the North Atlantic Convoys; it is to ignore the families from Wick to the Lizard who lost husbands, brothers, sons, mothers, daughters, sisters, and more. To present Remembrance as solely about Military Veterans – which is what the original motion did – is to fall victim to the idea that war is a solely military occupation, which exists at some sanitised remove from the rest of society. To do so is to forget that bombs fall on civilians just as easily as they do on soldiers, and that war takes no account of background, creed, or colour. In its original form, CUCA’s motion would have militarised the University’s commemoration, and ignored the experience of millions. Put simply, it would have honoured the fathers and forgotten the children.
The fact that the motion was rejected, in amended form, is deserving of discussion. But that’s for another article. Instead, let’s get at the idea of ‘owning’ Remembrance – of who can celebrate it, and how. We all ‘own’ Remembrance. No one can dictate how it is carried out, or how it should be done. In its broadest sense, Remembrance is a kind of national grief – when we look at the wounds we have sustained, and the people we lost, and we mourn them. And it is right that we do so. However, like any other form of grief, it remains highly personal. I have marked Remembrance Day at Chapel services, and I have marked it at home. I have marked it on a train from London to Cambridge, and I have marked it in a Year Eleven History lesson, when our teacher stopped the class, had us stand silently at eleven a.m., and then resumed the lesson. I don’t know what people think of during the silence. I don’t believe it’s my place to ask. And just as it is not my place to ask, it is not my place to tell them what to think.
This is what has been missing from the events of the past few days – a sense that Remembrance is a universal thing, and yet is marked in a multitude of ways. We all live in a world marked and scarred by conflict, and we should all remember that, and remember those impacted by war. And it’s this universality that needs stressing: no matter how much elements of the political spectrum try to nationalise Remembrance; no matter how much Morgan tries to paint a pacifist into a corner; no matter how much people try to politicise the poppy, or the silence, or the act of Remembrance itself, it remains a universal experience. Every family has someone to remember; every person will have walked past a memorial, at some point or another, to soldiers who marched out one day and never returned. The memory of conflict is a constant. It lives in the memories of grandparents or parents, and in the red wreaths that spot the country as the leaves fall from the trees.
I will either be in London or Cambridge this Remembrance Sunday. If I’m in Cambridge, I will go along to the commemoration in town. If I’m in London, I will head along to the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner for the silence. We all remember in our own way – those are mine. This personalisation of Remembrance is key. By remembering in a manner that is relevant to us, we avoid seeing war as an abstract, and Remembrance as the commanded commemoration of that abstract. Instead of becoming a series of boxes to be ticked – poppy pinned, silence held, head bowed, that’s it for another year – it becomes something which stares us in the face and demands our attention. At my school, we passed the memorial to the Old Boys who died in the First and Second World Wars on a daily basis; this personalised the conflicts, and reminded us that instead of being simply statistics in a book, or ghosts lost to history, these men were like us. They laughed, loved, and lived like us, and they had lives as rich as ours. They had dreams, and they had potential.
But they died: by the Coal Heaps at Loos and on the banks of the St Quentin Canal; on the rocks of Monte Cassino and in the Tennis Court at Kohima; in Korea, Aden, and Afghanistan.
My Great Grandfather was born in 1895. He died in 1977. He was, in many ways, one of the lucky ones of his generation. He survived the War, and built a life and family afterwards. But looking at his life, and at how the man of 1919 is a world away from the boy of 1914, it’s impossible not to feel that, although he may not have left his body on the Western Front, he left a part of himself there.
This is what we should remember. Not the beating of drums, nor the slow marches as the Brigade of Guards marches past men in feathered hats giving the salute, nor the triumphal victories and hero-worship of a thousand war-films and conference speeches. But the millions of people – dockers from Greenock; steelworkers from Merthyr; bakers from Kiel – who had their lives cut off in mid-stream, and the millions more who found themselves living for the rest of their lives in a hell not of their own making.
Remember the Soldiers, the Veterans, and those affected by war. But remember them as people, and remember them in a manner beyond simple box ticking, or performing of obsequies because you feel you must and are told how.
And don’t lower yourself to using them for political point scoring. That’s the greatest disrespect of all.