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Lest We Forget

Thursday, 11 November 2010

I don't know quite what it is that fascinates me so, but a very high proportion of my favourite books/tv shows/films are set during wartime. Perhaps I'm a glutton for tragedy, perhaps it's the sheer emotional power of the drama or perhaps I'm just drawn to the heroism and sacrifice so often on display. If I watch Warriors (a criminally underrated BBC drama) or Band of Brothers or the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth I'll usually be found sobbing. Bravery humbles me and so I cry.

Last year I went to Bruges and whilst there, visited a lot of First World War related sites. I was utterly drained afterwards as it made me unbelievably emotional and I basically wept my way round the cemetery but it's one of the best things I've ever done. I don't think a lot of people understood quite why I wanted to go in the first place. I know it's not the most usual holiday destination but it was something that I needed to do.

Tyne Cot cemetery

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission do an outstanding job. This cemetery is one of many and they're all immaculate.

Some of the gravestones have heartbreakingly sad inscriptions but it's the unknown ones that really got to me, especially the rows and rows of Australian and New Zealand graves. There were just so many of them, men who had died halfway around the world and all that could be said was something as simple as "An Australian solider of the Great War."

Trenches and shell holes at Sanctuary Wood, just outside Ypres. This was a baking hot June day and there was still mud everywhere. I can't imagine the horrors of it during winter.

I was reading Letters From A Lost Generation at the time which I really can't recommend highly enough. It's heartbreaking but wonderful; letters between Vera Brittain and her brother, fiancee and two friends, all four of whom died in the war. It drives home the utter futility of it all but their optimism and eloquence through such horror is awe inspiring.

I know I've talked mostly about the First World War in this post but that's just because of having visited the battlefields and cemeteries last year. It's equally important to remember all the other conflicts and the sacrifices made by people. So tomorrow I'll be taking part in the two minutes silence and I'll be thinking of the big brother of one of my best friends. The army was his life but it's also a large part of the reason why he ended his life. To do the things he did in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq took immense courage and that should never be forgotten.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them

from For The Fallen by Laurence Binyon

And just to leave you with a final piece of poetry, because it's a bit lesser known than work by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and I think it deserves to be better known:

In Memoriam
by Lieutenant Ewart Alan Mackintosh (killed in action 21st November 1917 aged 24)

So you were David’s father,
And he was your only son,
And the new-cut peats are rotting
And the work is left undone,
Because of an old man weeping,
Just an old man in pain,
For David, his son David,
That will not come again.

Oh, the letters he wrote you,
And I can see them still,
Not a word of the fighting,
But just the sheep on the hill
And how you should get the crops in
Ere the year get stormier,
And the Bosches have got his body,
And I was his officer.

You were only David’s father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight -
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.

Oh, never will I forget you,
My men that trusted me,
More my sons than your fathers’,
For they could only see
The little helpless babies
And the young men in their pride.
They could not see you dying,
And hold you while you died.

Happy and young and gallant,
They saw their first-born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
They screamed “Don’t leave me, sir”,
For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.


  1. O,jeez,you're gonna get me going now.....I'm tremendously fascinated by the two wars,particularly the second,as my father fought in Tarakan,somewhere off Borneo,against the Japanese,and he never got over it.Nor did he ever talk about it.G's father was with the forces that occupied Japan just after the end. G and I visited Gallipoli some years ago,as many Kiwis & Aussies do,and it just ripped us to bits.
    This is a beautiful post,darling,about a gut wrenching reality that just doesn't seem to end.
    Anzac Day is massive in our parts;I must go to the dawn parade and wear my Daddy's medals one of these days.
    I'll check out Letters from a Lost Generation,as I don't mind a good weep.I actually have a book on Tarakan-Daddy was once looking at it in a bookshop,and a youngish man noticed,and asked him if he had been in the war.Daddy said yes,he had,and the man bought him the book.How amazing and respectful is that?! I haven't been able to face reading it yet,though,as Daddy has marked bits in it,and I think I'm scared to face what HE faced.I will read it one day.He ended up with dementia;the doctors think it was because he was traumatised by the war,and eventually his mind just gave up.So sad.
    Bless,darling,I've said it before,and I'll say it again-you're a treasure!

  2. Crikey,that's a bit maudlin.Sorry!!!
    Touched a nerve,that did! xxxxxx

  3. Oh, that muddy trench is heartbreaking. Very apt post for today.
    There's the fascinating German Cemetery over on Cannock Chase which always brings home the futility of war, hundreds of pristine plots sometimes bearing only the words, German Solider.
    Give Birdsong another try. xxx

  4. What an inspiring post, Alex!
    I have to admit, I haven't really ever learnt much about either war, so I guess I go along in a kind of blissful ignorance about it..A couple of friends have fought in Iraq and Afghan, and my great-granfather lied about his age so he could fight in WW2, but wouldn't speak about it when he came home, apparently.
    But I'll be partaking in the silence anyway.

  5. I'm surprised and pleased at how many blogs this morning have mentioned Armistice Day. I visited Ypres a few years back and it really touched me - although we were only there a day and arrived too late for the trip to the cemeteries, we went to the War museum and visited some of the graves and went to the Menin Gate for the Last Post. And I agree, it's the graves of 'A Soldier of the Great War' which are th most upsetting.

    Lest we forget.

    And my phone at work had better not ring at five to eleven like it did last year either!

  6. Mr D and I have long been discussing doing a similar trip. That last poem is so sad, it got me quite teary x

  7. Very emotional and beautiful post, thank you x

  8. Beautiful Alex, I have been filling up all day. It is so important that we go to these places and learn about what happened and make sure that we pass this down through the generations.
    Kandi x

  9. That poem is so sad, thanks for putting it up. I was annoyed today at how few people came downstairs for the 2 minute silence at my work : (

    I'll have a look at that book, another that's very good is Nella Last's war - observations of housewife 49. She was part of the mass observation project but wrote in loads of detail. Very moving look at the side of the people at the Home Front.

    Danni xx

  10. I've been to Sanctuary Wood and Tyne Cot Cemetery too! We went there on our A level history field trip many years ago. We visited several cemeteries, including a German one which was really dark and depressing. Just being over there was very moving and humbling.

  11. That's a really moving post, Alex. I remember studying the war poets at school and being really emotional about what they were communicating. xx

  12. i went to the WW1 trenches in ypres, and i remember being so shocked that people spend days on end down there fighting. great post x

  13. Oh Alex this post is amazing.

    Band of Brothers and Black Adder go forth get me every time.

    I saw the most amazing WW1 play in London once, it was incredible, my English class slept most of the way through but I was hooked, and in tears.


  14. Dear Alex, what a brilliant post. I am rubbish and anything to do with war. I find it all far too sad. I still can't watch Schindler's list.

    The Actor on the other hand is an expert on wars and will watch every war film. We call it war porn.

    I wish I could deal with it better but I find it all so pointless and tragic. I bought him Letters of a Lost Generation at Christmas last year and it's wonderful. Of course the few I read made me cry. Hope you're good, I've been off radar, I will email you xx

  15. Im definitely on the same level as you when it comes to tough emotional stuff like wars. Such a wonderful post x

  16. YES! I love the regeneration trilogy, I've lost count of how many times I've read it. Amazing.

  17. Really brings it home, doesn't it? Some people are so brave, I sometimes wonder if I could have done it...

  18. Thank you so much for sharing this post and pics. The trench pix are horrendous - every young adult should be made to visit these sites of massacre. Thank you for touching on the NZ and Aussie graves - it's a relief to know they're kept in pristine condition. xo


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