11th November is Armistice Day – also known as Remembrance Day. It marks the anniversary of the end of the First World War on 11th November 1918.
I was a child in the 1960’s, early 1970’s. World War Two was my parent’s experience and their point of reference. My toys were the plastic soldiers of that war. In our schoolyard games ‘Gerry’ was an enemy and we played at ‘Japs v English’. To me, World War One was already just a vague, somewhat distant, historical event. There were family stories: of aging great aunts who were lifelong spinsters because they’d lost their sweethearts in ‘The Great War’. There were sudden gaps in Family Trees, and fading old photographs of strangers I couldn’t place… Of little interest to a young boy who was always a daydreamer; with his head stuffed full of men landing on the moon, and the next TV episode of ‘Dr Who’ or ‘Star Trek’.
At Grammar School I was taught history out of dry, dusty old text books and – uninspired – forced to memorise, as best I could, the events of British history including World War One. It made little impression.
Then, in an English lesson, the teenage me was introduced to the war poems of Wilfred Owen. Suddenly the lights came on! Not only did I find a poet who actually had something to say and a reason to write about it, but I also began to see and understand the true reality of the events he was describing. His poetry touched me deeply. It still does. In Owen’s own words, ‘The poetry is in the pity.’ He spoke of real experience; of ordinary men, not heroic armies. He spoke of the everyday incident, not of great battles or glory. And he wrote plainly, honestly, graphically; brutally where brutality was the truth.
Today, more than a hundred years on, what might be the best memorial to the millions who died in World War One, and to the countless others whose lives were forever scarred by it? Sad to say, Mankind has never learnt the lessons of war. Perhaps we as individuals can do no more than this: live our lives the best we can. (Don’t underestimate the challenge.)
Words alone are not enough…