by Ian Langworthy MA LLB, Historian and Battlefield Guide
You may be asking yourselves, “So what is the point of remembrance?” It has been more than 100 years since the end of World War I and nearly 80 years since the end of World War II. There are no living survivors of the 1914-18 conflict and a dwindling number from WWII. Yet the memory of those world-shaping events is still very much alive.
However, memorials are still being erected. The National Welsh Memorial Park near Ypres, commemorating the Welsh regiments who fought in the Ypres Salient in WWI, was opened as recently as 2014. Most significantly the new memorial at Ver-sur-Mer to the 22,442 servicemen and women under British command who died in the 1944 Normandy campaign (including a memorial to the thousands of French civilians who also died then) was officially opened by the King (then Prince Charles) only last year.
Bodies are still being recovered from both world wars. In 2009 the remains of 250 Australian soldiers killed in WWI were found in a mass grave at Fromelles, France. The identities of more than 100 of those were revealed by the modern use of DNA testing. A new cemetery was created close by where the bodies were then reburied.
And still every night at 8.00pm the Last Post (the bugle call marking the end of the soldiers working day) is sounded at the Menin Gate, Ypres to commemorate some 56,000 of those killed in the salient who have no known grave. Nearby is Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, the largest CWGC cemetery in the world, where there are some 12,000 headstones (80% of which mark the burial of an unidentified soldier), as well as a further 35,000 names on the rear wall who have no known grave.
Most people alive today have a recent ancestor who fought in one or other of these conflicts. One of my grandfathers served in the Royal Garrison Artillery stationed at Ypres, the other fought with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry at Vimy Ridge, both in WWI. My father also fought with the Rifle Brigade in North Africa and in Italy in WWII. So whilst a Year 9 student studying WWI for GCSE may think that it is ancient history, in reality it is not so long ago.
It is often said that the lessons of history are never learnt and that the mistakes that led to past wars are simply repeated. This, you could argue, is something that is demonstrated by the current conflict in Ukraine, and whilst it will be some time before the history of that conflict is written, it is a stark reminder of what can so easily happen again.
So what is the point of remembrance? It is not a celebration, but commemoration. Commemoration of so many men and women who sacrificed their lives serving their country. You may argue about the justification for war as a means of resolving national disputes but that is not the point. The point is that those people deserve to be remembered and as a result of the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the information available on the internet and many other research tools, it has never been easier to unlock the stories of the people whose names and graves are recorded.
So on 11th November, when, as a nation, we remember those who died, we are acknowledging that under every headstone and behind every name on a memorial there is a story which deserves to be told. We owe it to those men and women to discover and tell those stories so that their memory will be preserved and honoured by future generations.