They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
We will remember them.
‘For the Fallen’, Laurence Binyon, 1914.
This November marks one hundred years since the end of the First World War.
‘The Great War’, as it was originally known, claimed the lives of over 17 million people. It was five costly years, of violence, trauma, and devastation. Sparked in June 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Europe that would emerge just five years later; would be totally unrecognisable…
Russia was overtaken by Bolshevism.
Germany’s great empire was carved up and redistributed.
The imperial dynasties of both Turkey and Austria-Hungary collapsed.
Plus, the total destabilisation of European societies and establishments arguably lay the foundations for the Second World War… which would begin just twenty-one years later.
When I was 17, I was fortunate enough visit the battlefields of Belgium and France. Particular memories from those few days will remain with me forever. Laying a wreath at the Menin Gate, whilst listening to the Last Post, was an incredibly moving experience. The Last Post takes place every single evening of the year at 8pm, at the Menin Gate, in Ypres, Belgium. There was something incredibly haunting, yet beautiful, about the way in which the remaining sunlight illuminated the names of over 54,000 soldiers, who gave their lives during WW1 – but whose bodies were never recovered.
When we visited Tyne Cot Cemetery, in Belgium, our tour guide gave us an hour to wander amongst the 12,000 graves, and select one to lay a poppy on. As I walked through the rows and rows of immaculately preserved gravestones, I came across that of Lance Sergeant David Donaldson, of the Canadian Infantry. I chose this grave for two reasons: because I have Canadian family, and because my father’s name is David – it seemed, at the time, to be something that connected him and I, so I lay my poppy, paused, and then moved on.
When I got home, I researched Lance Sergeant David Donaldson – I wanted to know more about him. He was 26 when he died. He was killed on November 6th 1917, the final day of the Third Battle of Ypres, which led to British and Canadian forces securing the Belgian village of Passchendaele. He was from Calgary in Alberta – the exact province and city from which my family originate, and he was the son of James and Mary Donaldson – the middle names of both my parents. The links between Lance Sergeant David Donaldson and I are so slight, and obviously completely coincidental – but it’s a name, a grave, a moment, a sacrifice – that I’ll never forget.
I’m writing this blog, because I believe that it is more important – than ever before – that we remember those who have given their lives in defence of others. As a society, we have reached a horrifying impasse. Violence, trauma and devastation have become mainstream news. Shootings, massacres, wars, conflict, put plainly – aggression – litters our daily news-feeds, and it is so tragic. It is so important, now more than ever, to reflect on this aggression, and its place within our past and present – but not necessarily our future.
This country, I believe, remembers and respects those we have lost very well. If praise can be given for such an activity. I’d highly recommend a visit to the National Memorial Aboretum, which in its own words is: ‘…the UK’s year-round centre of Remembrance; a spiritually uplifting place which honours the fallen, recognises service and sacrifice, and fosters pride in our country. It is a living and lasting memorial.’
It’s an incredibly emotional place, with over 350 different memorials honouring different regiments, atrocities, and conflicts. But what really struck me, and stuck with me, is that there were many empty walls on ‘The Armed Forces Memorial’. I remember thinking – they’ve surely missed something here, it’s blank? Then it dawned on me. It’s space for new names. That split second realisation was so powerful, and is yet another moment I’ll never forget.
I’ll be remembering Lance Sergeant David Donaldson at 11am tomorrow morning.
Who will you be thinking of?