I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t observe the two-minute silence on Armistice Day. Whatever our views of the business of war, military engagements overseas or the economics of investment in defence, we pause and reflect on the fallen. The last survivors of WW1 have passed on now, but those affected by that conflict – and all those that have followed – are still with us.
A year or so ago, Anne and I (she’s the brains of the relationship) took a short trip to Bruges, in Belgium. It’s a marvellous medieval city which was spared the devastation of WW2 bombing; a gem of a place where development has been kept to a minimum.
While out there, we visited Ypres in a daytrip, including Tyne Cot Cemetery, Hill 62 and Ypres itself. All most of us know about WW1 is poppies, a few old songs that make little sense and the fourth series of Blackadder. 54 nations were involved in the ‘Great War’, many regiments from fledgling countries keen to demonstrate their new national identity. A global generation slaughtered or scarred, and in the whole bloody process, the foundations laid for the Second World War. At all those places we saw, people paused and reflected there too.
It’s easy to get caught up in our modern lives with rising mortgages, shit jobs and unfulfilled childhoods / adolescences / adulthoods. But here’s my cure. Take a trip to Tyne Cot Cemetery and gaze in wide-eyed despair at row upon row of identical headstones, reflecting the bright sun like bleached bones in a field. And look at the columns of names that fill the walls: like the graffiti of the lost. I promise you, it brings a different sense of perspective. No answers, just an opportunity to pause and reflect.
It would be a fitting tribute indeed if Armistice Day became a focus for peace. But until that day, the very least we can do is make more time to pause and reflect.
And while we’re strolling in shades of grey ambiguity, have a read of this famous poem by Rudyard Kipling. It’s as relevant today as it’s ever been:
You can also find a great version of it on Youtube, read by the actor Nigel Planer.