Lest We Forget


Last summer I had a trip on a steam train, and as we wound through the Somerset countryside with our cider and ploughman’s the talk became wistful; the next table even sighing that the country had gone backwards since the 1950s.


In the ‘50s ex-servicemen could be seen drinking meths on bombsites in city centres, while the suburbs had B&Bs with ‘No Irish, No Coloureds’ signs pinned to the net curtains. In school a boy wore callipers, a legacy of polio. And when our teacher started a family, she was told to hand in her notice. Then there were the Spam fritters, dreary Protestant Sundays, the Suez Crisis (when we found that our standing in the world was not what it was), and do I have to mention Bronco toilet paper?


Nostalgia thrives at times of loss; in a changing world it can help us to hold on to a sense of rootedness. But as we get older it seems we are hard-wired to edit these memories, to re-invent a golden age that never was. This is nothing new, as military historian Sir Max Hastings knows: “Some of our family’s men, in old age, used to talk nonsense about what wartime fun they had, but the women never did. Separations, squalor, ghastly food, the gloom of six years’ blackouts interspersed with stabs of terror were the lot of tens of millions, even those fortunate enough to be spared from battlefields or enemy occupation.”


As we remember our war dead we owe it to them to remember well. David Low’s 1940 cartoon following the fall of France depicted a Tommy standing on a storm-wracked English shore, shaking a fist at the bombers overhead. The caption: “Very well, alone.” Wonderfully patriotic, but in truth we had the Empire behind us with its vast human and material resources.


On the Menin Gate are named 54,896 British, Irish and Empire soldiers who died in WWI’s First Battle of Ypres and whose graves are unknown. Among them Ram Lal, Tora Khan and Sundar Singh, along with other Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. These men of the Indian Army found themselves in a land they had never seen, fighting an enemy of which they knew little and in a cause not their own.


Britain no longer rules the waves, but our service men (and now women) are still called upon to risk their lives for people they've never met, in lands few of us care about. Yet though this century has its horrors, the previous one was uniquely bloody. Even Korea, ‘the forgotten war’ of the 1950s, saw the deaths of over one million combatants and two million civilians. They should be remembered too.


The Rev’d Allan Sheath.