The eagle-eyed of you may have noticed that I did not make a post on the fifth of November. I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should be about anti-papist rhetoric rather than ‘yay, Central London didn’t go BANG!’ but what do I know?
I believe there is a far more important day to remember in November, anyway. Sure, it’s nice that Parliament didn’t go up with the king inside (nice being rather sarcastically delivered, given that James I/VI wasn’t exactly a great monarch, and that worse things have happened to governments than being destroyed. But what do I know?).
I did not post yesterday, on 11th November itself, partly because I was labouring under the impression it was the tenth until about seven o’clock last night. I did not realise because I suppose the concept of ‘Remembrance Sunday’ is ingrained in my brain. I have myself marched in a Remembrance Sunday parade as a Girl Guide, and probably would’ve done it every year had I not been Catholic and thus able to waive my right to sit in a cold protestant church once a month. I had to do it in a cold Catholic church every sodding week, thanks very much.
I have been to the battlefields (not every single one, obviously) of France and Belgium. I have been to Normandy. I have also been to Dunkirk, where I once spent part of a very beautiful summer on the infamous beach building sandcastles and eating the best waffles I’ve ever tasted. I was very young then, but still understood that this place held great significance.
I’ve been to Mansell Copse, where the Devonshire Regiment were slaughtered by machine guns before their remaining men still took the town. When we were then, a decade ago, some of my class found rifle shells in the newly ploughed fields around there.
I’ve been to Verdun, Tyne Cot, the Menin Gate, Ypres. I’ve been to Pegasus Bridge, Colleville-sur-Mer, Pointe du Hoc, Sainte-Mere-Eglise, with its parachute memorial on the church spire (part of something called Operation Detroit, some of you may be interested to learn). I’ve been to Bayeux, and we all found staring at the Bayeux Tapestry a welcome break from the hellishness of facing up to the reality of war.
I suppose my point is this: forget the films. The films you’ve seen are universally bollocks. No amount of faux-blood or Spielbergian fake horror, Wayne gung-ho, Flynnanigans or rewritten history will ever, can ever, prepare you for the way it feels to be surrounded by 12,000 graves or look up at a wall containing 30,000 odd names. These are just numbers which mean very little until you are thrust into the reality of it.
Sadder still, a very small cemetery in what was once a trench. “The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshire hold it still.”
It’s very hard to truly understand bravery until you have stood in a wood and had the machine gun positions pointed out to you as you walk the same route those poor, brave men took once upon a time.
It is not about heroism. It’s not about who has the best movie. It’s not about marching and parading. It’s not about pride. It’s about unspeakable bloodshed, fear, sorrow and death on a scale most people may never understand. Perhaps I still don’t.
There is someone a couple of rooms away from me who has been to North Africa, India, Libya (i think) and Italy courtesy of, indirectly, fascism. He was a signalman, you know. He will likely not see next year’s Remembrance Day. As far as I know, he has not tended to take part in these sorts of things. He does not talk about the war in the ways you might expect. He’ll talk about which army, which battalion. He’ll tell you the Americans used to come over to the British for some half-decent food. He’ll tell you that Mark Clark was a total twat. He won’t use that word, but that’s what he means. He will not tell you that he was himself a hero. He will not tell you what it was like to live through it. He won’t tell you about his friends. He won’t tell you what it is like to face death or to pull a trigger knowing someone is at the end of the sights. He will tell you, if you ask, what happened when he nicked a load of meat to give to the people who would become his parents-in-law in starving Pula. That meat went, I’m told, around the entire town and was still remembered when my parents visited in the 70s. He will not brag, nor moan, whine, gripe or any such thing, because that is not what he does. He won’t tell you the horrors, and I will not ask.
He will not tell you he is a hero. Most of the people who have fought will not ever tell you that they are heroes. But we know they are. We know they are heroes as sure as we know that we could likely never withstand the things that they have seen and done. These are things that are being seen and done today. I’m not going to tell you about the politics of it, not today. Except for one thing: I find it personally revolting that Rev. Ian Paisley was there to lay a wreath. Not because he milked it for all it was worth and a little bit more… but because I cannot help thinking that if he had unbent just a little, if he had stopped saying “ULSTER SAYS NO!” then perhaps the list of servicepeople dead, the list of civilians dead, would be rather shorter. Just my opinion, and yes, I’d say the same in the unlikely event that Gerry Adams was there.
My granddad was in the London Irish Rifles. My other granddad was an Irish Guard. My dad was as a young man, in the territorial arm of the Royal Greenjackets rifle regiment, the guys with the insane-fast marching pace. If not for the lack of promotion opportunity (having grandparents in a communist country in the 70s was frowned upon. They’d have given him a job but never let him get far), he’d have become a fulltime Greenjacket.
The people you see in the parade are not proud in the way you might think. They are not there to say ‘how great are we!’ Well, some might be. They are there because they know as well as anyone that by remembering our war dead, we remember why they died and therefore have a chance of avoiding it happening again. As long as they are remembered, they are loved.