Leader comment: Remembering the past should help shape a better future

Commemorating the dead without committing to try and prevent a repeat of the sacrifice is meaningless
US President Donald Trump closes his eyes as he visits the American Cemetery of Suresnes, outside Paris. Picture: Getty ImagesUS President Donald Trump closes his eyes as he visits the American Cemetery of Suresnes, outside Paris. Picture: Getty Images
US President Donald Trump closes his eyes as he visits the American Cemetery of Suresnes, outside Paris. Picture: Getty Images

It was not, in the typically oafish words of Donald Trump, a celebration.

On Saturday, the American President – before failing to turn up at a US military cemetery in France because it was raining – told his 55 million Twitter followers he was in Paris to “celebrate the end of World War One” and asked: “Is there anything better to celebrate than the end of a war?”

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Mr Trump’s dependably vulgar intervention stood in stark contrast to the tone of events held around the world to mark the centenary of Armistice Day.

Tempting though it is to simply ignore the President’s contribution, it stands as a useful reminder of the importance of the values we cherish as we remember those who fell in the Great War and in many subsequent conflicts. As we think of their courage, their loyalty, their comradeship, and their sacrifice, we are reminded that – no matter how determined Mr Trump and others who travel his path may be to debase opponents and divide people – these are values we should hold closer than ever.

After the laying of wreaths by, among others, Prince Charles, Prime Minister Theresa May, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, 10,000 members of the public, descended from services personnel, marched past the Cenotaph in London in what was described by organisers as a “nation’s thank you”.

This simple, silent procession of those who carry with them something of those lost in battle was powerfully moving. So, too, was an event in Folkestone where the film director Danny Boyle oversaw the etching on the beach by a team of artists of a portrait of the poet Wilfred Owen. Owen – who was killed a week before the end of the First World War – had left for France from the beach on which his image was recreated. Yesterday, as millions around the world fell silent at 11am, the tide crept across the poet’s image, slowly washing it away. It was an elegant visual poem, a reminder of the fragility of life.

The events of the weekend do not, of course, direct our thoughts solely to those who lost their lives in battle, they also make us think about the circumstances that led to conflict.

As we remember those who died, we also examine the mistakes of the past that created the catalysts for war. Commemoration of the fallen without a commitment to ensure that others are not, wherever possible, called upon to make the same sacrifice would be meaningless.

One hundred years after the last body fell during the First World War, young men and women continue to risk their lives in the service of this nation and many of those people will, in time, need our support. The impact of war on service personnel is far better understood than it once was. Many men executed as cowards or deserters between 1914-18 would, today, be recognised as sufferers of post traumatic stress disorder.

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And so we were encouraged to hear a suggestion from opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn for a new “social contract for veterans”. Mr Corbyn said that, under his plan, those leaving the forces would be guaranteed a home, mental health support, and opportunities in education and employment.

It is abundantly clear that many ex-services personnel require a great deal more support than they now receive; Mr Corbyn’s suggestion is one to which the government should give serious consideration.

We remembered, yesterday, those who gave their lives in service of the UK but those people are gone now and we can offer them only our thoughts. A truly fitting memorial to those who fell would be our commitment to properly support those who follow in their footsteps.