Remembrance Day and why it must always matter.
Remembrance Sunday, Armistice Day, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, whatever you choose to call it, is a day that is invariably gloomy of weather, chilly of wind and comes in the dreary winter sized gap between Autumn and Christmas, but it is also a day that has always occupied a huge place in my heart. It was a day that punctuated the Novembers of my childhood often spent at my grandparents’ house, in front of their gas fire, in sombre reflection on an era that whilst bygone, was still very much within touching distance for them.
Separated for five years during the war whilst my grandfather was held prisoner in the infamously brutal Stalag XXB camp in Poland, they endured hardship, terror, personal loss (my grandmother’s two brothers were lost at sea when their boat was torpedoed and her elder brother later killed himself) and the relentless bombing of my home city by the Luftwaffe. As a 17 year old, my grandmother’s role as a land girl was to go out alone, at night, during the air raids carrying buckets of water to douse house fires ignited by the falling bombs. A fact that should make me wholly inured to any of my own perceived 21st century domestic angst about unloading the dishwasher or putting the recycling out once a week, but to my shame it is not. It is simply too easy and human nature after all, to forget, especially the further those experiences recede into the past.
The facts of my grandparents’ teenage existence could not have been more different from mine. Which made their unsmiling recollections of the 1940’s to me, as a child in the 1970’s and teen in the 80’s, seem even more separate from mine, when of course, it was a mere 30 years earlier. If only my 17 year old self had had the wit to value and want to hear about the horrors they had managed to survive, instead of rather wishing they’d be quiet about it so I could concentrate on watching Dynasty or Top of the Pops or whatever my latest preoccupation was back in the day.
My adult sense of regret about not allowing them to linger over the details of their experiences hurts me now. In much the same way that I now easily reminisce about an event from the early 90’s that seems only five minutes ago, at last I finally understand their preoccupation with the war years and how visceral it remained for them well into old age. It was after all a singular horrific and defining period in their lives and for the rest of the world. And everything that happened ‘after’ should have felt like a gift, but sadly for many, including them, their future was to be a blighted one. My grandmother suffered, quietly for much of her adulthood life, frequently unable to go out,because (in her words) her ‘nerves were bad’. No wonder, having had to brave the horrors of the blitz less than three decades earlier. We’d call it PTSD now, but back then it didn’t even have a name. And my poor grandfather was forever mentally trapped in the Polish labour camp, recounting vivid tales of the horrors he endured there to anyone who would listen.
Now they are no longer with me, the day holds an even dearer place in my heart. Whilst my childish ignorance meant I was incapable of feeling the extent of their pain then, as a middle aged adult now, I find the extent of their war-time loss heartbreaking. To wave off your two brothers at the age of 17 to never see them again, to kiss your sweetheart goodbye as he boarded a train, and to not see him again until five years later only for him to return a changed man; to live a miserable and cold existence imprisoned in a labour camp far from home and be tormented and bullied by your captors…are all experiences that are thankfully beyond any I could possibly imagine.
And as our parents’ generation now limp to their own ‘front line’ it will soon be left for us to be the standard bearers for our grandparents’ loss and sacrifice. In another ten years or so we may well be the only generation left old enough to have had relatives who survived or died in the last World War. So each year with the arrival of the paper poppies; the plaintive bugling of the last post from the cenotaph; the eerie silence that falls over Whitehall; and the row upon row of elderly men in wheelchairs, we must, and we always should, remember them.