Memory has always fascinated me. When I studied Fine Art it was the focus of most of my work. I explored the idea of how an object might prompt you to remember something and so it was almost as though the memory was contained in that object.
In the past I have often found myself struggling to engage with Remembrance Sunday and perhaps that’s because I and none of my significant others have any personal memories of the World Wars. It is a somewhat curious concept to be remembering something you never witnessed or experienced.
Today there was an article in The Independent’s magazine about a writer who went on a journey of discovering his father’s experience as a soldier in WWI. His father was wounded in the Somme, a wound that the writer claims saved his father’s life. The writer went and stood in the field where the trenches had been dug and where tens of thousands of men lost their lives. Over a million were killed in total during the entire war. These numbers are so huge it can make it a challenge for our brains and then our emotions to really engage with what happened.
This time I walk out alone into the ploughed farmland. This is the actual spot. This place has obsessed me for two years. I am not ashamed to say that I started to cry. I think of my father, just a boy, wounded and cursing and frightened, lying bleeding on the ground in front of me.
Keith Howitt, ‘A Somme Survivor’, The New Review, 8th November 2015.
The editor of The Independent wrote about how in our culture we can move so fast from one occasion to the next. Everyone seems to get driven nuts by how Christmas is already at our door when we’re still heading to the beach with sun cream and speedos. It’s true, we often don’t dwell on the season we’re in for long before distracting ourselves with preparing for and anticipating the next. I felt challenged by this and I realised that though I can’t just up and visit the Somme to really take it all in. I can still “go there” by exploring other people’s memories. As I read this article I was deeply moved, especially by the above passage. Suddenly this momentous event became a personal experience: a young man, not even 19. Then I turned to a book of war poetry that we have and felt my eyes prick with tears at several of them. In the introduction the editor talks of how most of the well-known war poets were just ordinary men, many of whom had never written poetry before the war. I find that interesting and powerful; the place of creativity and expression in pain and devastation. I will share one with you and perhaps reading my blog post will help you to “go there” in your mind and remember these ordinary men who visited hell on earth and shaped our future whilst losing theirs.
By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison,
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.
By all of man’s hopes and fears,
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my unfamiliar hill
Save with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of Thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.