I find Remembrance Sunday sadder each year. It’s partly that I’m becoming sentimental – I find it increasingly difficult to recite any poetry without a catch in my voice – but it’s mainly that the fallen are now closer in age to my children than to me.
When I was a small boy, I was, as small boys are, uncomplicatedly pro-war. At around eleven or twelve, I started to read the First World War poets, but I was still mainly attracted by the heroic element in their writing: their endurance in monstrous circumstances. Later, as a teenager, I began to wrestle with the question of whether Britain ought to have become involved (probably not, I currently think, but it’s finely balanced). Now, I find the whole business almost too melancholy for words.
There was a Remembrance Service at my children’s school this morning. We sang familiar hymns and recited familiar words, and the fallen old boys were remembered by name. A small school, a long list: more than 120 fatalities. Of every nine boys who answered the call, two failed to return. In the list, I noticed what looked like two sets of three brothers: three telegrams each to two waiting mothers. Looking at the assembled children as the recital went on was almost unbearable; several parents had tears in their eyes.
One old boy of the school had returned as a teacher and then gone on to become headmaster. Almost every one of the school’s Great War casualties had been known to him either as a classmate or as a former pupil: a death, on average, every twelve days for four-and-a-quarter years. We are not made for grief on such a scale.
The teacher who delivered the address told us about something I had not heard of before. There are 53 villages in the United Kingdom known as the Thankful Villages: villages where there is no war memorial, because every one of the young men returned alive. When we think that there are more than 16,000 villages in the country, we glimpse the magnitude of the tragedy.
Tragedy is, for once, a precisely apt word, for tragedy can be felt vicariously. It’s not simply that there are almost no First World War veterans left; there are hardly any of us who remember losing friends or family in the conflagration. Others fell in later conflicts of course, and we honour them. But, as we approach the centenary of the Great War, our sorrow is second-hand.
Don’t make the mistake, though, of thinking that that makes it ersatz. As the Greek tragedians understood, our emotions can be engaged by another’s experience. The rituals of Remembrance Sunday – the silence, the prayers, Laurence Binyon’s words – were evolved to console the bereaved. A century on, they trigger, in the rest of us, catharsis, in the exact sense: a feeling of being drained and cleansed through emotional release.
The generation that mourned its sons passed; then that which mourned its comrades; then that which mourned its fathers, clinging, perhaps, to fragmentary childhood picture-memories. Then the fallen became faces in yellowing photographs. Now they are names on family trees. Soon, they will be only history. Yet we will remember them.