Dulce et Decorum
Est pro patria mori. The guns boombed across Parliament Square, the radio and the nation went silent at 7.30am on Friday morning, we remembered even though it was a dull day and one could barely see the sun come up. The Somme. On July 1 1916, Kitchener’s volunteer army lined up, pals battalions, to advance not to certain victory but for one in five to die. Dulce and Decorum.
While my maternal grandfather spent his Great War in Africa and the Middle East his brother Douglas Gracey won two MCs on the Western Front. My family is coy about on which Austria-Hungarian front my Czech grandfather fought. My school won its VC at Zeebrugge and a bucketful of MCs and unnamed graves in the mud and carnage of those endless trenches.
In the Second War Vivien’s father and his four brothers went off to do their patriotic chore. As did my legal, biological and step fathers. The cost of Europe is not just a few pieces of silver.
But my generation was also brought up with the understanding that when it was our turn we too would step up. Duty, obeying orders, taking the pain, team spirit, play up. As Dr Johnston said, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, not having been a sailor.” All men want to know how they would react in battle.
100 years ago, some, while waiting to go over the top, shot themselves in the hand or foot so they would not have to die. Most obeyed the fatal orders. Others in their bunkers raised their glasses, “gentlemen to when the barrage ends” and raw courage could be wasted. Some officers put open cheques into a hat to be shared by the survivors. Play Up.
But by the 1960s we had rebelled against our up bringing. I could no more serve than go ballroom dancing. But somehow as age starts to wither me the shadows of memory grow deeper. I have become a member of the War Memorials Trust. I have a guilt about my name never appearing, a life lived fat and long in peace and prosperity rather than a life cut like a vulnerable poppy. Lest we forget.