Remember, for the right reasons

I had never really had any strong feelings towards Remembrance Sunday until I visited the battlefields of The Somme.

It was just a day where we remembered the fallen. An important day, yes, but just another day. We remember those who died in the many battles throughout many wars over many years. We wear poppies. We fall silent for 2 minutes at 11am. We reflect. We hold services around the country. Special programmes are broadcast on television. The last post is played.

November 11 and the neighbouring Remembrance Sunday hold similar connotations for most people. As pupils at school we would stand in assembly and listen to the names of those from our school who died in the two world wars, after a mad scramble as the teachers would check all of us had a poppy pinned to our chests. As a teenager at work we would insist on serving no customers at 11am for those two minutes, and the music was turned off. At home we would observe the silence of those around the country as clips of such were broadcasted all over the country to the solemn sound of the last post.

Today, in Leamington, it was a slow realisation, as it is during a busy day. Many were beginning their Christmas shopping. I was on route to Next for my partner to buy jeans. He pointed to his watch, I looked at mine. We stood.

Looking around the Parade, many had already stopped. We turned our heads to the end of the street, where the Remembrance service was taking place by the war memorial. We squinted and peered into the sun, a golden glow emitted from down the hill. Gradually, everyone looked. Everyone fell silent. Everyone stopped. We all stared into the light, as if we expected something to come out of it.

The Somme and Ypres battlefields tour was a unique and moving experience for all of us who enjoyed it. A mixture of sixth form students travelled to northern France and were given a three-day tour around individual battlefields and memorial grounds with guides.

As an emotional person who wells up at news items on a regular basis, I of course expected to be moved by this experience. I visited the exact same grave a friend had visited a year previously, and saw rows upon rows of identical stones, ironically framed by a backdrop of clear blue sky, colourful flowers and a cheerful sun. I took hundreds of pictures of gravestones, of poppies, of names in their thousands engraved on walls, memorial statues and tiny wooden crosses.

While I am adamant (as a history student should be) that we all should study the past in order to remember, to learn and to prevent repetition of the same mistakes, I think this was an experience where my knowledge clouded my vision. The experience of war was not an experience to me, nor will it ever be. The personal aspect of these men, some as young as 13, who had perished for our country, was lost on a student with no memories, no stories from grandparents, just photographs, film clips and pages from text books.

It was not until the final day of the trip where the emotions (and tears) began flowing. The last stop on our tour was at Caterpillar

Valley Cemetary, a beautiful but small graveyard and memorial overlooking fields for miles around. The students of the Royal Latin School lay a wreath, as they do every year, upon the grave of an ex-Latiner who died in the war. I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t thought to pack tissues, but needed them.

On the return to the ferry, we listened to this song. I still tear up when I hear it.

We all think we know the meaning of Remembrance Sunday, but you won’t until you have some reason, someone, something, to

make it personal to you. That sounds ridiculously selfish, but it’s true. For me, it was the knowledge that some man once sat in the same place I sat, learned at my school, who had given up his life to fight for thousands of others. It could be a relative, a story, or anything.

History needs personalisation in order to mean something to us individually, and that’s why every year on this day I won’t remember seemingly meaningless fields of poppies, graves, death and destruction. I will remember Private E.W Broughton from the Warwickshire Regt. who died on 23 July 1916, aged 23. “We asked for him life. Thou gavest him life eternal.”

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