My grandmother was born in 1906, the youngest of thirteen children. Three of her brothers were killed in the First World War. She was not a woman who was tolerant of establishment hypocrisy and sonorous banalities about “our glorious dead” were apt to bring a contemptuous snort from her. The fact that, nearly a hundred years later, British politicians, cheered on by the media, are still sending young men to die in a pointless and illegal war in that graveyard of Imperial ambition, Afghanistan, while uttering the same banalities about sacrifice for their country would, I think, have aroused a characteristically sharp response. The evasion of political responsibility and the political grandstanding over the conduct of the war and the provision of equipment would probably have provoked some sharp comparisons too.
Watching the tributes to Harry Patch, the last survivor of the Western Front on the news tonight, and hearing his reflections on the futility of war, I found Alan Bennett’s comments on remembrance in The History Boys coming very strongly to mind:
We don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault cos so many of our people died. And all the mourning’s veiled the truth. It’s not “lest we forget”, it’s “lest we remember”. That’s what all this is about – the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way if forgetting something than by commemorating it.
The passing of the last man who could confront the official story and say “I know different because I was there” is a very important moment indeed.