Andrew Wilson: The debt we owe to heroes of war
I GREW up fascinated, but not really touched, by the myriad of war memorials that punctuate the landscape in the villages and towns we live in.
They are everywhere, and as I grew older I understood what they meant, but they didn’t move me until more recent years.
It must be my middling age, but I now struggle to properly ponder the names and ages of young lives lost without watery eyes. Having children of my own makes the desolate loss so many fathers, wives and mothers must have felt – and still feel – much more real. The experience is a huge part of the story of our country and of almost every family within it.
I took my oldest child to the National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle recently. Seeing the names of lives lost in conflicts written on paper in books makes the reality all the more real. If you haven’t gone, go soon.
He is still too young to comprehend its meaning. But we shall go each year until he does.
My generation will be the last to experience the oral history of this first hand, from a parent’s generation born into it, or a grandparent’s who fought in it. We need to think about what that means and fight to keep the reality of the story alive for ages to come. The sheer numbers of lives lost, especially in World War One, is mesmerising and the impact on whole communities indelible.
This week marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the beginning of the end of the last world war. Throughout the summer commemorations all over the British Isles will mark the outbreak of hostilities in the Great War a century ago. This is quite a moment.
Glasgow will form the centrepiece of the Commonwealth’s commemorations as well as of the Games this summer. There can hardly be a more appropriate choice and time – the second city of the empire lost far more than its fair share to the mud and torture of the trenches. The joy of the Games will be followed by the solemnity of remembrance.
It is hugely important that the depth and weight of the shared sacrifice and agonies felt is respected properly. It is clearly very tempting for politicians to seek to point score on a referendum theme. This would be counter-productive. Hugely.
Some time ago the Prime Minister came in for criticism when he called for a “commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, says something about who we are as a people”. It was an unfortunate turn of phrase which should be forgiven as long as it is not repeated in word or deed.
In truth, the war said a great deal about who we were, across the Commonwealth and across the peoples of these islands. Ireland had more than 200,000 serving in the British army and thousands perished alongside Australians, Indians, New Zealanders, Canadians and South Africans. Too many Scots were among them.
The unifying point is that the Commonwealth strained and sacrificed together along with many other allies against common foes. And we should remember, of course, that former foes are now close friends and allies in the community of nations which itself is the ultimate victory that was won.
And the historic reminder for all nations is that in both world wars so many gave so much so that we might enjoy the relative era of peace and harmony that we do today. It will be all too easy for that to be taken for granted as time’s tide flows.
Of course, there can also be a celebration of the Britain that led the fights and won. No-one prosecuting the independence argument need or ought to diminish the achievements and shared experiences of 300 years. It would be churlish in the extreme to imagine that no good ever came from it. Of course it did.
Indeed the healthiest terms on which to embrace an independent future and a new relationship within Britain is with positive respect for all that has been and gone. We should find peace with the choices of our history as we make new choices for tomorrow and today.
The conclusion I reach as I contemplate any war memorial is that for the living life remains short. For the sake of those who gave theirs for us we must make our own personal memorial by living as good a life as we can. They had to fight and die for the common good. All we have to do is devote a small part of our existence to serving others, whatever the choices we make in politics and in life.
I also hope that in another 100 years, our children’s children will commemorate again and unify across these islands and the wider commonwealth.
We can’t imagine what the world will look like then. But we must hope it is a far gentler place than the trenches of the Somme then or the streets of our towns and cities on which our homeless sleep today.
What a blessing for our generation that we aren’t called to the same sacrifice. But our responsibilities to the future must be taken just as seriously. «