Paper poppies bloom, as fragile as the lives they represent. Every year it is the same, I try to find some way of saying what is in my heart and the words will not come. I was not there, I have no right to speak of war and its atrocities. I have not seen it with my own eyes. I have never aimed a gun at another human being and been faced with the choice whether to kill or be killed. I have not tried to sleep in cold mud made from the earth of a foreign land mingled with the blood of my comrades. I have not lost my child to war.
I have no right to speak, but nor have I the right to remain silent when the price of my freedom to speak was so high. I have a duty to my own conscience and to all whose lives were given in service to their country or lost to the horror of some political expediency written in blood.
There are many tales of heroism and valour in the field, tales that highlight the beauty and nobility the human spirit can attain. But war is never beautiful, nor is it the glorious myth we have historically created when we need recruits. War is born from the desire for power. Whether a formal declaration of war is made by the aggressor or the defenders, whether the war is fought for necessary or political resources, to uphold an ideal, for the betterment or protection of a way of life or for its imposition, the cause of every war is an idea…and ideas are born first in a single mind. For this single idea, or because we feel we must defend ourselves against it, we are prepared to sacrifice an entire generation, yet we will read about tribes who sacrificed a single human life for the good of the community and call them barbaric.
Today, with our so-called smart weapons, we can obliterate a whole city remotely, not just one person, not even one generation, with the touch of a button. Gruesome death is a constant on our TV and cinema screens, we even play games with it. The gift of life is cheapened and our reverence for human life seems a thing of the past. Yet that life is our own… and ironically, our fear of death seems to be greater now than ever before.
This year sees the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele. There is no accepted figure for the number of lives lost in that one, appalling battle, though it is certain that over half a million men were killed, maimed or wounded. That we do not even know how many is perhaps commentary enough.
Harry Patch, who was the last surviving, fighting soldier from WWI, fought in that battle. He died in 2009 at the age of 111, and was given a military funeral at which he requested not even ceremonial guns be present. He had spent eighty years trying to forget the horrors of war, but when he reached a hundred years old and was brought to the eyes of the media, he was once again asked to remember…and for the last years of his life, he spoke of little else.
Harry believed that war was wrong and that a war that would eventually be settled around a table should be fought there and not cost millions of lives in something he saw as “nothing better than legalised mass murder”.
Harry was wounded at Passchendaele by a shell that killed three of his friends. A short while before his death he was asked what it felt like to be the last man alive to have fought in the trenches.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “I sit there and think. And some nights I dream – of that first battle. I can’t forget it.
Continue reading at The Silent Eye