Last weekend saw Remembrance Sunday: I had a Remembrance to remember!
I was visiting my parents (now in their nineties) in Wells, Somerset. My Dad’s a stalwart of the Royal British Legion: I offered to get him around Sunday’s various Remembrance events in that fine little cathedral city.
Bright, glorious morning sunshine added a golden lustre to Wells’ magnificent medieval cathedral.
I ferried Dad not to the cathedral, but to St Cuthbert’s parish church.
There we joined the mayor and Corporation for a service, the Last Post, silence and wreath-laying at the city’s war memorial, a ceremonial echoed in towns and villages across Britain.
Representatives of the armed forces, cadets, scouts, brownies and St John’s Ambulance lined up for the march-past. The mayor took his station at the saluting post, and a few of us bundled my Dad (as local British Legion president) on to the podium beside him.
Dad was due next at the Harry Patch memorial, unveiled two years ago. Harry Patch is nowadays described as the last surviving fighting Tommy, dying at the age of 111 in 2009. The memorial commemorates not only him but “all the brave young men lost in the Great War”.
There’s a particular challenge in a Somerset march-past: the local regiment, the Somerset Light Infantry, marches at a sprightly pace.
The column passed the mayor at speed, led by a corps of drums, and there followed a somewhat undignified race to the next episode.
Dad puffed up the hill as quickly as his pacemaker would allow, reaching the memorial as the Last Post began. Fortunately they didn’t ask Dad to do the oration (“They shall grow not old …”): he probably didn’t have the breath to do it at that moment. But he laid the wreath with appropriate dignity.
Even then it wasn’t over. I dashed off to collect my hire car, bundled Dad in and hurtled up to the city’s cemetery.
There the Legion has erected a recent plaque to commemorate the 25 war graves (including those of two VCs) in the graveyard. One more Last Post, a final silence, one last wreath.
One thing struck me powerfully. It was the first time in my life I’d seen my Dad in his medals. I’m not sure why. He wasn’t a combatant in World War II: on the contrary, he was busy saving lives as a doctor fast-tracked through medical school at the start of the war and, for the last two years or so, working in a war hospital as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Perhaps when I was a child he was less interested in medals, the concept of sacrifice or old comrades. Perhaps he was just busy being a village doctor and a father. But now I can see how fiercely proud he is not of what he did, but of everyone else’s efforts, and of the sacrifices made. He was visibly moved each time we stood in silence, laid a wreath, or heard the Last Post sound.
But Remembrance isn’t exclusively about the old. It’s not only about my Dad’s generation, let alone that of his father who fought in the trenches. It has relevance to the young, too.
Young soldiers are currently giving their lives in Afghanistan. And we shouldn’t for a moment think children don’t appreciate what Remembrance is about. Once again this year I was moved by my school’s Remembrance Ceremony and, above all, by the reaction of the school’s hall full of 11-18 year olds.
In many ways the young empathise more readily than people of my generation.
And I sometimes think that they reach out to people of my Dad’s age all the better.
Through Remembrance, all of us (particularly the young) renew our determination to view war only as a desperate last resort, and even then as a catastrophic manifestation of failure in the human spirit.
So we should.
@bernardtrafford Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.