John Sadler: Ypres isn't a tourism destination; the Last Post is not meant to be applauded

North East historian John Sadler is concerned that the way were are marking our acts of remembrance risks becoming a travesty

A wooden cross and a photo are left as a memorial at the Menin Gate during an Armistice Day ceremony in Ypres, Belgium
A wooden cross and a photo are left as a memorial at the Menin Gate during an Armistice Day ceremony in Ypres, Belgium

If, like me, you’re grey enough to have experienced the heady hedonism of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, Remembrance – the collective consciousness of the cost and legacy of, primarily the two world wars, probably didn’t feature that largely.

In fact ‘army’ was really un-cool. The Vietnam War was on and disabled US veterans were spat at on the streets. Che Guevara was on everybody’s walls, as were Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and ‘chopped hogs’, (for the young, these were customised Harley-Davidsons; our 200cc Triumph Cubs somehow weren’t quite in the same league).

Military, aside from combat jackets, was out of fashion, symbols of an outmoded and discredited establishment.

The wheel has, however, swung full circle.

Remembrance is now massive. You can’t be seen on TV from late October onwards without a poppy, to do otherwise would verge on the heretical. Remembrance Sunday is a big fixture in the national calendar, rightly so of course but what, exactly, do we remember and why?

Levels of observance, not just in the UK but across Europe, have risen steadily over the last 30 years. Does this mean we’re more aware of the impact and resonances of history or are we descending into an all too familiar world of mawkish sentimentality, risking ‘Disney-fication’ of the whole process?

I frequently talk to school groups, across all of the present key stages and remind them that their generation, unlike mine, will never have the privilege of talking directly, face to face, with those who were actually ‘there’.

The risk arises that they will lose connection with their great-grandparents who’s generation went through the Great War.

Indeed, survivors of the Second World War are also reaching advanced age.

Soon, when speaking of the Holocaust, it will no longer be possible to connect the young with survivors of the camps, a very powerful learning tool in itself.

Remembrance, therefore, and how we commemorate, why we commemorate, will be increasingly taxing as the personal connection ebbs away.

Recently in Belgium, when the Ypres Fire Brigade buglers play the Last Post, I’ve hear audiences tending to clap – to applaud. But this is not some entertainment; it’s a ceremony. To view it as a pleasing diversion, an add-on to the tourist experience pushes the whole purpose towards travesty.

You’re not there to enjoy yourself, to feel uplifted as you chomp your burger, (as many seem to do), but to remember what those 54,896 names inscribed into the vast sepulchral arch which surrounds you actually mean.

These are the missing, the disappeared, who lie unknown in the dozens of CWGC cemeteries scattered throughout the bloodied soil of the Ypres Salient.

These were real people, young men who died, mostly horribly, in a terrible conflict of unimaginable suffering.

That is what we need to remember. The Great War was never glorious. It was never noble. To die in a foreign field in the prime of youth is terrible. Those young men who responded to Lord Kitchener’s accusing finger were both noble and glorious, their patriotism should be a source of enduring pride; the fate of so many of them a well of grief.

Increasingly and contrary to previous revisionism, we hear the Great War described as a ‘great British Victory’. The Kaiser’s magnificent army was defeated – but at enormous cost. It is fashionable to suggest that the last shot of the First World War was the first in the Second and there is truth in this.

Remembrance should teach us that war is awful and brings no real victory in any sense. At the same time we must honour the sacrifice of those who died for us and for all the freedoms we take so easily for granted:

When you go home tell them of us and say - For your tomorrow we gave our today.

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