Sunday was Remembrance Sunday. With every passing year, the crowds at the Cenotaph in Blackpool seem to swell rather than shrink. Counter-intuitive, you may think, as ‘time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all our sons away’. But on Sunday, we had veterans old and new gathered together, and it brings home how our armed forces’ service in Iraq and Afghanistan has been so prolonged and, tragically, life-imperilling, that it is creating a new generation to sustain this important national day of reflection.
Moving as the Remembrance Day service is, far more moving for me this year was my visit two months ago to Ypres and Thiepval. Standing beneath the grand, Indo-Saracenic arches that make Thiepval the most accomplished of all Sir Edwin Lutyens simple but powerful memorials, it is impossible not to reflect on the unimaginable scale of the sacrifice. The lists of names on just this one Monument to the Missing stretch into the tens of thousands. As the school group and its chattering noises drifted away, and other visitors hurried for cover, a Somme raincloud burst overhead, and I was left alone overlooking a landscape which had seen such slaughter as to be unimaginable to our generation. To lose twenty thousand killed, as occurred on the first day of the Battle of the Somme which took place beneath Thiepval, should give us all pause for thought.
I believe it vitally important that successive generations have the opportunity to visit these sacred sites. Sacred not in a religious sense, as the original designers had a very clear secular principle to adhere to, but certainly sacred in terms of our national identity and its formation. For our close allies like Canada and Australia, it is sites such as Vimy Ridge and Gallipoli which have become the sites of national birth – not the constitutional development, so much as the birth of a true sense of nationhood which belonged to those who served, rather than those who bestowed their nationhood upon them.
I was especially impressed by the Canadian monuments and memorials as they had young Canadians staffing the entrances, welcoming all visitors and explaining what was available. This made the absence of such a ‘welcome’ all the more noticeable at various British Memorials to the Missing, not least Tyne Cot and Thiepval. The young Canadians, I would imagine, have a great impact on the Canadian school groups that tour these locations, and perhaps also emphasise their importance to a younger generation as much as the interpretation centres.
It strikes me that it would be an eminently sensible idea as part of our National Citizen Service scheme to recruit young people in between A-Level and going on to university or other employment to spend a set period of time (perhaps 3 months?) at one of the major Memorials to welcome visitors and explain facilities available to them. As with the Canadian example, I think it would also communicate to school groups that such sites are relevant to their age group, and might help foster a greater degree of respect for the locations. This is an idea I have submitted to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as well as the Prime Minister’s expert working group on the commemoration of World War One, which I hope will be well-received.
My own view is that it is essential that we maintain these visits so that future generations understand their significance. Indeed, I would like to reach a point where Thiepval has as much resonance in our national story as Vimy Ridge does in Canada or Gallipoli in Australia and New Zealand.
To me, the act of remembrance is about trying to link both the enormity of what occurred with the very human scale of that suffering. When my train pulls into Preston, I often look up at the war memorial on the station platform commemorating one of the Pals battalions – a memorial that gains added significance when I link it back to the names that are in their tens of thousands on the Menin Gate in Ypres.
Ypres is now once again a prosperous market town, prosperous partly thanks to the large numbers of visitors who pass through the town as they make their way on their own personal pilgrimages to find the grave of someone they may never have known, but who matters in their family’s story. Anyone driving the local roads will be struck by the number of tiny war cemeteries set in the midst of agricultural land, often down a dirt track, often just a dozen or so graves, but immaculately tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission no matter the size of that cemetery. Around the corner from the Cloth Hall on Ypres’ main square lies the Anglican Church of St George in Ypres, maintained lovingly by the small British community. Inside, one can see numerous tokens of remembrance, not least plaques from many schools commemorating the pupils they lost in the trenches, and it was striking to note Rossall School had had a plaque erected during one of their visits. Everywhere you go in the area, there is a connection between what we see in our own community, and what is commemorated.
Thoughts are already turning to how we commemorate the beginning of World War One. Numerous initiatives are underway, not least a thorough overhaul of the Imperial War Museum (already one of the best in the country) and a renewed push for a national online register of war memorials (which I campaigned for some time back when we had the appalling case of vandalism of Blackpool’s Cenotaph). I also think ensuring ever more school groups get the chance to go to the battlefields is perhaps the most important measure, as that will ensure that the numbers who gather around the Blackpool Cenotaph will never diminish or fade away.