Watching the rain fall outside, it is not difficult to think of the great and wonderful things that this year has brought. From the misty surrounding of Pozieres Cemetery in March, to watching the sun set over the Ossuary at Douaumont, the sun shining brightly over Tyne Cot, to the hidden, blood soaked agony of the Mort Homme. This season of remembrance is very different from last year, completely different. It is not how I will remember the past, it is a overwhelming feeling of how we are going to commemorate the Great War in the future. Will Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday still have that same meaning in 15, 20, even in 100 years time? What I know for certain is that I will not be able to bear witness in my mortal frame, but it is a important fundamental question. Will the people of this country still bear witness to the agony and slaughter that we as a nation endured?
This time last year I was preparing for my maiden tour as a guide for the Centenary of the Armistice, this year I’m off to university for my second set of lectures. When I’m on the train back to Wolverhampton, I will reflect on a time not too long ago that saw the chapter close on a very unique period of our country’s history. To be there on that particular weekend, to witness the end of 100 years of commemoration, 100 years of honouring the fallen. 100 years since the beginning of the end of Britain’s imperial power. I can be able to bear witness to something that meant so much, something that only few people can truly understand.
Last Armistice Day, alongside my friend Ellen, who had also been part of the Armistice Tour, came with me to the Ramparts Cemetery at Ieper. Where just before 11am the relatives of the late Battlefield Writer, Rose Coombs came to see the end of the centenary celebrations. It was where her ashes were scattered after her death. We were blessed with a solitary piper who played a lament over the water. It was a cloudy day, with a chilly wind over the waters of Iepers fortress moats. As Ieper fell silent and quiet at 11am as we reflected on all those heroes who had gone before us. It was a spine tingling moment, one of many that weekend. Then as soon as the piper finished his lament, the bells of St Martin’s Cathedral rang out the sound of victory over the immortal salient, where tens of thousands of British, French, Commonwealth and German troops fought to the death, and thereby creating a legend that hopefully will last for centuries and millennia to come.
Then I spoke in prayer, Laurence Binyon’s epitaph to the fallen, it was probably the first time that I had ever invoked those words that have been spoken reverently at the Menin Gate every night at 8pm after the Last Post. It is more than just a poem, it is a covenant, it is a declaration of devotion to that generation that now is in the presence of the almighty. A promise to uphold and remember their sacrifice, and most importantly to keep the peace that they won. To remember those who have given their lives in recent times for the same cause that they died for. I wondered about the future and wondered what it would bring. Even today I haven’t found the answer.
This Remembrance Sunday, and Armistice Day 2019 remember not only the British and Commonwealth soldiers, but the French, German, American, Senegalese, Algerian, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Serbian, Italian and Turkish soldiers who in their turn gave their lives in the Great War, they were a extraordinary generation in a very extraordinary time. As the American General John Pershing once quoted “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.” To me that statement is not wrong. It has as much importance now as it did then. Why cannot we have such inspiration as we did then? What did we do wrong? We certainly live in very different and disheartening times. But we have to keep moving forward and to try and see the light in the overwhelming darkness that surrounds us everyday.
How do we Remember our Glorious Dead? Have we in the words of St Paul to Timothy in the New Testament “Kept the Faith?” We have all different ways of commemorating our Glorious Dead, from the Cenotaph in London, to the Imperial monuments in Belgium, France and all corners of the globe. Even to a family burial plot in a local churchyard. Their Soldier etched on the stone because he has no grave, no marker of his final place of rest on a field many miles from home. A hope and belief that they in heaven will meet in the presence of God. Think of that aspect of remembrance too.
Pieces of music, such as Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth stick as spine tingling moments in our national psyche. Elgar’s Nimrod to me is the most poignant piece of all. Standing under the Menin Gate on the last full day of the centenary celebrations. Listening to that piece of music sent a shiver down my spine, a tear rolling down my face. It was the end of a chapter, a chapter that was now coming to its conclusion. A year has now past and I still have as many questions now as I did then. I hope that we keep them in our hearts, not just for one Sunday a year, but for the whole 365.
That is their legacy. It is our inheritance to Remember and reflect.
Their Name Liveth For Evermore