Sunday, 11 November 2012

We Shall Remember Them

As Acts of Remembrance go on all over the country today, I find myself reflecting on the fact that it is even more important to remember the truth about the effects of war on ordinary people as we move further and further away from the two world wars and direct experience of war becomes somthing that few British people possess. When I was a child, most people's grandparents and parents had not only lived through at least one major war but had also lost friends, family members, fiances. The effect of war was visible everywhere. My grandfather who was in the trenches, I think between 1915 and 1917 including fighting at Passchendaele, had a slightly mysterious 'war wound' which caused him some pain. He never ever spoke about what he had experienced and even as an old man he would often spend long hours lost in absolute silence, gazing out to sea or drumming his fingers on the table. My father was a navigator in the Fleet Air Arm during the second world war and, similarly, he hardly ever spoke of his experiences - tales had to be dragged out of him. What he had observed of war made him a pacifist for the rest of his life. He would attend remembrance parades but he avoided anything that tended to glorify the exploits of war in any way. All his life he, too, would lapse into half days of total silence from which he would suddenly recover as if nothing had happened. My mother (who was in the WRNS during WW2, spending some time at Greenwich where she witnessed the terrible effects of the bombing of London) could never say goodbye in less that 10 minutes (even if you were just going to stay with a friend for a night). She never wasted a morsel of food - as an elderly lady she would struggle to eat over-large restaurant portions because you just didn't refuse food. She saved everything from string to twice-used dress material and even darned tights a number of times over before consigning them to the bin. I can see how some of my parents' and grandparents' wartime preoccupations and their ways of coping have affected my life and others of my generation in our family. I can recall my mother telling me how utterly tranfixed and horrified she had been at the end of the war when the stories of the liberation of the concentration camps began to emerge. She gave me Anne Frank's diary to read when I was about 9, 'Lest we forget', and the possibility of living in a society where you could abruptly have your freedom taken away was something that haunted my childhood.

I cannot begin to comprehend the courage of soldiers and civilians caught up in war. It is surely our duty to remember those who have given their lives in the Armed Forces and their families and to pray for and support them. It is important to hear the voices and the stories of those who have been and are experiencing war, civilians and refugees as well as military personnel. As my father used to remind us every year, it is no good just regretting the fact that war has happened and still does. His life-long belief was that we must do something to work to prevent it and to support those who are unwittingly and unwillingly caught up in its horrors, bearing the consequential mental, physical  and social scars for the rest of their lives. He used to say that the best kind of remembrance was for everyone to do some small thing to make their own contibution to goodwill between people. Dad's way of 'doing something' was to volunteer as a Samaritan and to get involved with local politics classes over many years. He and Mum never missed an opportunity to vote and took their responsibilities to the democratic system and to international aid very seriously indeed. 

I've recently been reading Kate Adie's autobiography and reflecting on the number of conflicts there have been since the second world war. Huge numbers of people suffer the ravages of wars we scarcely hear about or give a second thought to every year. Medics spend their energy coming up with the most astonishing life-saving techniques for a small number of individuals while other great swathes of population die from diesease, starvation and violence.  In the quiet of the evening, let us pray

Have mercy, O God, on this distracted and suffering world,
on nations perplexed and divided.
Give to us and to all people a spirit 
of repentance and ammendment;
direct the counsels of all who work
for the removal of the causes of strife 
and for the promotion of goodwill;
and hasten the coming of Your kingdom of peace and love. 
                                                                                                   Frank Colquhoun

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