‘Remembrance’ on the 100th year anniversary

On Sunday 11th November, at 11 o’clock, we bring our thoughts together in remembrance to those who have fallen in the line of duty, representing the Commonwealth Nations.

People respect Remembrance Day from far and wide each year, but 2018 holds something maybe more poignant. 100 years will have passed since the armistice was signed to bring an end to the horrors of the First World War.

So many years have passed since that historic day, someone from my generation has to question as to whether or not true remembrance actually occurs?

Yes, poppies are worn, money for charities are raised and minute long silences happen up and down the country, but the real sense of remembrance of those young men and women taken so quickly, in the time we refer to as ‘War’, feels sadly fictional.

I am sure those families who have a personal attachment to anyone who has passed away in military activity will be in a state of remembrance. For anyone who read this I give my upmost respect and condolences to you.

To understand the past, we could seek the first hand experience of someone who was there. But one hundred years on from the end of the First World War, there is simply no one left to tell the tale.

Ask questions within your family, you may be surprised to find out what you hear of a relative who played a part in the ‘Great War’. Whatever it is, it may just help to gain a sense of what remembrance is.

I’m fascinated by history and found learning about the First World War extremely interesting. Like many I have a strong personal connection. My story is of my great-grandfather, Private George Hooley, who served with The King’s Liverpool Regiment. His story is one of misfortune that turned into fortune whilst holding a machine-gun post at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. The Battle was for the all-important Belgium city of Ypres, a massive offensive for the Allied army, which ended up being a colossal slog for such small ground.

The horrors of the event were probably best summed up by the Prime Minister at the time, Lloyd George, in his Memoirs of 1938, stating, “Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign”.

My great-grandfather got shot in his trigger hand resulting in most of it being lost! He was guided out of the whistling of gunfire and torturous agonising cries of the front line for medical attention. Taken back to ‘Blighty’, useless to those on the front line, he was later discharged on 29th November 1918. The date was so favourably on his side. Fighting had stopped and the War was over. My great-grandfather had managed to escape with his life, but nearly 300,000 British soldiers could not do the same.

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My great-grandfather George’s discharge paper from 29th November 1918

The scale of the loss of life is incredibly hard to fathom. Britain lost an estimated three quarters of a million lives in the First World War; families were destroyed. If the young Private from Liverpool had not received the injury that took him away from the front line, one has to question whether he would have survived at all. Would he have survived to meet his wife, to bring up a family that would develop into eventually creating me?

This alone gets me to think, to take a quiet moment and establish a sense of actual remembrance. I don’t know what my great-grandfather and his fellow soldiers went through. One of the reasons it is difficult to understand is that nothing in this 21stcentury comes close to the horrors that happened some 100 years ago. It’s incomparable. Going to war for a person of my current age would not have been a choice, it would have been mandatory.

In November, as part of the Bedford Blues Rugby Club’s season, a trip across the English Channel was made for a few days of team bonding and also to visit northern France and Belgium.

A full squad of rugby players, coaches and staff made a trip with more thought about the first red wine or Stella Artois than anything else.

Menin Gate, in Ypres, is a monument holding the names of 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed or missing in action. This is where, as a squad, we laid our wreath on behalf of the club to pay our respects.

The cold evening was made even more chilling by a rendition of the Last Post; a ceremony conducted every evening at eight o’clock. You could sense that we had come to somewhere very real, a place of reflection, where an act of remembrance was a genuine time to connect with the past. All of us were deeply in the ‘moment’. You are surrounded by names of the past, some of those who had once been rugby players like us; names that had paid the ultimate price, names that were taken far too young.

We continued our venture away from centre of Ypres. The vast scale of the loss of life was continually demonstrated in the surrounding cemeteries imbedded into the Flanders landscape. The quietness of quintessential countryside allowed for ironic sense of peacefulness.

Tyne Cot is where we visited to lay our last wreath. Here, in West Flanders, is a place that can only be described as a gigantic yet peaceful garden, holding over 11,000 individual white graves and a further 8,000 plus names on the cemetery walls. The sound of bird songs brings nothing more than tranquillity, something so far from the reality of the horrors and disaster that lay under our feet some 100 years ago.

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The Bedford Blues squad at Tyne Cot Cemetery

It was a trip that opened up our eyes, something that if given the chance I’d recommend to anyone. To put it crudely, it is a visit to places where ultimately a generation of human history was wiped out. You don’t have to be a history lover to take in what enormity and significance is in front of you.

The 100-year mark gives great significance to this year but ultimately, Remembrance Day is a time for paying respects to those who have lost their lives in all other conflicts.

I will certainly be wearing my poppy with pride this November. My great-grandfather George was lucky, but I’m sure many of his friends were not so. I’d be doing him an injustice to not pay my respects and ‘remember’.

My final ‘thought’ comes from the powerful words of the poet John Maxwell Edmunds, 1916, which we hear on Remembrance Day. ‘For your tomorrow, we gave our today’. No matter what you might think of war and anything that surrounds it, people of very young ages were sent to fight and died serving a cause. We don’t live in a perfect world but one hundred years on we are lucky enough to not be in such a position as Private George Hooley and his men were in.

So come the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month put down your phones, get off social media, and hopefully, in a moment of silence, a true sense of remembrance can be found.

By Will Hooley