remembrance sunday, 2010

“That at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities … so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”

Those are the words of George V, announcing Remembrance Day in 1919. This ceremony – seemingly so natural – did not exist before that moment. War was remembered by the Assyrians and the Sumerians in stone carvings of exuberant victory parades. Rome was defined by the extravagant ‘triumphs’ of its conquering generals. It took the First World War to turn our thoughts from conquest to sacrifice, and our memorial from chariots and chants to stillness and silence.

My father was one of two brothers, and their father worked in India. They were sent to the same British boarding school aged seven. They spent all their holidays together, often walking alone through the mountains. And because their father had served with the Black Watch in Iraq in the First World War, they too joined the Black Watch in 1940. Uncle George was wounded at Alamein and killed in Sicily, where he is buried. One of my earliest memories is of seeing my father place his thumbs down the seams of his trousers, at the sound of the last post and come rigidly to attention in front of an English war memorial. Two minutes of silence seemed a very long time for a child.

My father first saw me stand to attention at Remembrance Sunday when I was 18. I was in my uniform, with my poppy in my lapel and my sword drawn and I was very nervous. I had practiced punching my sword, out to the right, for the salute, so often that my arm seemed to remember the action by itself, but when the bagpipes sounded, and the march began, my steel-soled shoes slipped and I almost fell on my back, kilt in the air, at the head of a company of soldiers. During the two minutes silence, I looked through the rain, at the veterans who understood war as we did not.  It was 1991 and the Black Watch had last gone to war in Korea forty years earlier. The Cold War was over and our training felt as though we were rehearsing for a play which would never be performed. But we were wrong.

Twelve years later, my very brief stint in the army far behind me, I laid a wreath on Remembrance Sunday in the cemetery in Al Amara in Iraq. During the two-minute silence I stared, alongside ranks of British soldiers in their desert fatigues, at a wall, inscribed with the names of all the British soldiers who had been buried in that same Iraqi field in the First World War.  There were 4,621 buried under our feet, including half a battalion of the Black Watch and the name of “Private Frederick Bewley, S/6436, 2nd Battalion, Black Watch, Born in Langwathby, Cumberland. Son of Elias and Mary Bewley of Ivy Cottage, Langwathby.”

Remembrance Sunday has its strong familiar rituals: the poppies, and the marching veterans with medals, the Queen, the Cenotaph, the words ‘at the going down of the sun…’ and the C and G repeated three times by a lone bugler to introduce the last post. But at the heart of it, we find silence.  At the end of the First World War, where an ancient Greek would have built a hero’s statue, we built a tomb of an unknown soldier; where an ancient Greek, or even a modern American, might have a funeral oration, we have silence. We sense, perhaps, something in death which goes beyond words, or images, or individuals – which minds can only equally, anonymously and singularly confront in silence.

My friend Nick, who joined four years after me, has served in the Balkans, Baghdad and Kabul. Today he is in Helmand. On Sunday he will be standing in silence with his brigade in a province where more than three hundred British soldiers have been killed. There will be silence in Canada, whose troops have been in Kandahar and Australia, whose troops have been in Uruzgan. And it will be a silence shared by civilians in Vancouver and Sydney and Penrith. And it is silence that we can recognise in the very first time it was introduced, 91 years ago (described in the Manchester Guardian of 1919):

“The tram cars glided into stillness…the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition. Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’…Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain … And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.”

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