The church is empty, absolutely silent. But more than that. Today, the vacant pews hold an emptiness that goes beyond the usual. A ghostly congregation sits watching an invisible service, figures in perspex, barely perceptible. As I stand, clouds move from in front of the sun, shafts of sunlight stream through high windows. The outlines of the boys and men shine, and I feel the hairs rise on my arms and neck. These are the fallen of the First World War, the men and boys who left our village so many years ago, never to return.
It seemed wrong to write today without acknowledging the passing of the hundred year anniversary of the ending of the Great War, but equally I find it hard to put anything meaningful into words. I struggle every year with Armistice Day. I struggle with how I feel about it, and about how to commemorate it with the children. I find the descriptions of war unbearable, what men and women experience in war horrific; I see photographs of the trenches and feel shock. I do not like to be reminded of war because of the feelings it generates within me, but I am fortunate. I cannot imagine even a fraction of how awful it must have been because I have never experienced war and that is partly down to those men and boys who fought in WW1; those men and boys whose action shaped the peaceful country I live in today – men I did not know, and who did not know me.
I can’t visualise what twenty million people look like, it is a number I can’t put meaning to. Twenty million people killed in one war, losses that spread round the planet. Somehow numbers that big become meaningless. Sometimes it is at the small scale that it’s easier to comprehend. I live in what was once a tiny hamlet, and even from that little community, eight lives were lost. What must it have been like to be taken from a quiet rural life and thrust into war? A farm hand killed at the age of 21 in Gallipoli; what terrors must he have known? He barely had time to start his life. His story leaves me ashamed for feeling upset at sorting my boxes of memories last week – at least I had memories to sort.
So again, those questions. Should I commemorate Armistice Sunday? The answer to that for me is not a hard one – regardless of side, cause or justification, people died in their millions in the First World War alone; children, parents, brothers and sisters. Families were ripped apart and lives were cut short over and over again. For me, it is important that the sacrifice of those men and women is not overlooked. Feeling humbled and distressed for the couple of hours we put aside each year to remember those killed in action is a small price to pay for living in a peaceful country. But how to do it in a way that is appropriate for both me and my family. I would like to be involved with our community, but that has been made impossible: in places Joe has been rejected because of either an intolerance of autism or a lack of understanding. Anyway, formal ceremonies, while fulfilling a need in me, do not always work. Amos, and Melody also to some extent, are still not really old enough to understand the need to be silent in a two minute silence or the solemnity of the occasion. They try really hard, but sometimes they forget. Ears still ringing from criticism of my parenting of Joe, I am not willing to put my family out for judgement again. After much wavering, we decided to go to the local memorial display on the Saturday when we knew it would be quiet and we had the option of leaving if anyone Joe couldn’t cope with showed up, then watch the Remembrance Service on the BBC at home on Sunday.
Joe clearly found entering the church hard; he had so many conflicting memories. But I was proud of him – he looked at the displays before going outside to read. Amos showed me the poppy he had made (he picked it out, first time, from a group of around fifty almost identical poppies! – how can they do that?), Melody showed me the lantern she helped to make, and Peta took me through her Guide display showing how the newly formed Guide movement helped the war effort. A brief description of each of the eight men who died were on display along with photographs of the war graves. We watched film projected onto the wall of men marching, wading through mud, crouching in trenches beneath the smouldering skeletons of trees. And there were the perspex outlines I mentioned of people no longer there, sitting silently in the pews, helmets and poppies on the seat next to them. I tried to explain to the children without making it too horrific; they have time enough to learn – they have been given that privilege, not to have to comprehend the terror of war at an early age. Knowing boys lied about their age and went to war as young as Joe, brings home that privilege.
I was glad we had chosen to stay at home on the Sunday. As Big Ben chimed, Amos piped up “What’s happening?” I felt able to explain, again, through the chimes, that everyone across the country was stopping to be silent for two minutes to remember the lives lost in war. “Do you think the birds are quiet?” muttered Melody. Peta rounded on her, face incredulous. “Pigeons died,” she retorted.
I hoped I had done enough to honour the fallen.
Then this morning, I slipped into the back of church, wanting to read again (and concentrate this time) on the displays. I found them gone, but in the emptiness, I found what I was looking for. As the transparent silhouettes of those men were suddenly outlined with the refracted brilliance of the sun, a simple message shone through.
“For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”
These men and countless others have died over the years trying to bring the world a better future. For me, this is the message echoing through Armistice Day. A plea never to forget, to learn from the past, to never become complacent; a need for this never to happen again.
We will remember them.