Christine Jardine: This is how we can best honour World War dead

It was a simple sound clip. Not even the actual sound of the time but a reproduction of the last moment of the First World War. It was enough, however, to reduce me to tears, writes Christine Jardine.
Three unknown World War One soldiers were buried last week at Tyne Cot cemetery in Ypres (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)Three unknown World War One soldiers were buried last week at Tyne Cot cemetery in Ypres (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Three unknown World War One soldiers were buried last week at Tyne Cot cemetery in Ypres (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

With just a few seconds until that most symbolic of moments – the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month – there was still shelling, gunfire, the horror of war.

In those final few seconds, lives were still being lost. And then, suddenly, silence.

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There is an eerie poignancy to it and, taking part in the Remembrance events yesterday, I couldn’t help but think of how many lives might have been lost in those few seconds exactly a century ago.

But there is a second thought that I find increasingly occurs these days. The eleventh hour is originally, I’m told, a biblical quote from the parable of the labourers in the vineyard but, for generations like me, it means being saved at the last possible opportunity. It must, I cannot help but believe, have been chosen deliberately by the peacemakers.

At the last moment, they would have saved the world from even greater catastrophe. By that eleventh hour, 20 million people – both military and civilian – had lost their lives. Another 20 million had been injured.

So many families devastated across not just on this continent but America, Asia, Africa and Australasia too. My own family were, I always felt, lucky.

There was the story of my grandfather’s elder brother affected by gas on the front, but my grandfather himself was too young to go. Now 100 years later, standing in the cold, I feel we have arrived at exactly that same moment when the guns fell silent in 1918.

Out of that eerie silence a generation was given the opportunity to rebuild its future. And they did. They, and the generation which endured the Second World War, created a Europe which allowed us to prosper in peace.

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And that is exactly where we find ourselves this year. In the silence with an opportunity to rebuild. In Edinburgh that has particular poignance.

Wilfred Owen penned his first draft of the immortal Dulce et Decorum est while recovering from shell-shock at Craiglockhart hospital, just a few miles from where I sit typing this.

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His words – and those of so many others who used poetry to try and make sense of the horrors they had witnessed on the battlefield – revealed the truth: that war is not the heroic endeavour of fairytale battles, but a heartbreakingly pointless waste of life.

And as these poems gradually became more widely read in the 50s and 60s, our collective impression of war was altered forever.

Everything we do now in terms of our commentary and understanding of war is guided by these anthems for a doomed youth.

Thankfully, all-out war in Europe is now pretty much unthinkable (although events in Ukraine have shown us what can happen when a pumped-up Russia decides to flex its muscles).

But now that the integrity of the EU is under threat (and not just from Brexit – populist and anti-internationalist movements are on the rise in Italy, Germany, Hungary, Poland and others), so is the peace that the post-war generations, like us, have taken for granted for decades.

The historical roots of the European Union lie in the ashes of the aftermath of the two world wars, when Europeans were determined to prevent such killing and destruction from ever happening again.

Uniting European countries economically and politically, and binding together the industries needed to wage war, paved the way to securing lasting peace in the continent.

Now many Brexit supporters are keen to shout down any connection between the two as scaremongering. But the EU’s role in creating and maintaining this ‘Pax Europea’ must not be understated. Even Boris Johnson has said that the EU was “born of highest motives – to keep peace in Europe”.

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This fact was recognized when the Nobel Committee awarded the Union its peace prize for “transforming most of Europe from a continent of war into a continent of peace”.

Perhaps the most tangible reminder we have are the Commonwealth war graves in Northern France. A few years ago my daughter visited the Thiepval Memorial with her school as part of their study of the First World War.

When she came back, she wasn’t just better informed but more appreciative of the reminders around her at home. She asked about the medals that my husband had mounted on the lounge wall, which were awarded to his uncle in WWII, together with the telegram expressing regret that he, Trooper George Mitchell, had not lived to receive them.

She told us what she had learned and we listened to a fresh generation’s horror at what had been endured for their liberty. But there was one story which meant more. And as I pondered this year’s remembrance amid the confusion and chaos surrounding our future with the EU it struck home to me again.

Returning from Thiepval, she recounted how each of her school group had been told if they found themselves at the grave of an unknown soldier to imagine who they might have been. Give them a name, an identity, a family. Think about who they might have been before placing the little wooden cross and poppy they had each been given, on the grave.

It was also, she told us, the aim of those who look after those war cemeteries to ensure that one day every soldier who lies there will have been visited, and remembered, by someone.

So, as I stand for the moment of silence every year I think about who one of those young men might have been, his family, his hopes and dreams for the future he never had, but I have enjoyed.

And as we go forward perhaps we should all, but more particularly those of us who will shortly be asked to determine our nation’s future, hold that thought in our hearts.

We may not be able to visit them to pay our respects, but we can do it with our actions and how we behave as a nation.