Monday, 28 October 2013

We will remember them

We spent time in Ypres last week, in my case getting to know the place a bit better than on my last fleeting visit over ten years ago and doing research for my new book. I'll be posting extracts from my diary of the trip during the coming week.

But the overwhelming impression of the town and the immediate vicinity - even of our hotel - is of an area preparing for something. The walls of the Menin Gate were being cleaned; new soil was being delivered to teams of workmen at the Essex Farm memorial and cemetery; stone steps being re-set at Tyne Cot.

Because next year, of course, marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of war and with it an expected influx to the area of thousands of British and Commonwealth visitors, some seeking particular graves or battlefields, others merely keeping the memory alive and adding to their understanding of one of the most heroic and tragic events in human history.

My personal connection to the Great War is tenuous (I've written about it here) and not especially linked to Flanders. But I'd defy anyone not to be moved not only by the sights and sounds (the Last Post, played daily at 8p.m. beneath the massive arches of the Menin Gate chief amongst the latter) as well as the atmosphere of the monuments and memorials and museums.

There are now no surviving combatants of the First War, but there seems to be little decline in interest, in attempts to understand or in efforts to keep the flame of memory alive, from the crowds of Belgian and British schoolchildren flooding through the museums and being bussed around the battlefields, to the individual visitors (like the Canadian father and son sharing my tour) trying to place their own family story in its physical context and, hopefully, to know their family history a little better.

Some people think the deepening historical and social chasm between now and then - us and them - will inevitably lead to a gradual decline in our collective memory of the events of 99 years ago. But having seen remembrance in action last week, there's no doubt in my mind. Laurence Binyon's words still hold good:

We will remember them.

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