Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high…
From In Flanders Fields by Lt-Col John McCrae (1872- 1918)
Words don’t usually fail me, but it’s hard describe the three and a half days we’ve just spent in the Ypres area, on a battlefield tour organised by The War Poets Association. Does it seem a strange thing to choose to do – guided through those terrible, magnificent cemeteries in Flanders, maintained with such care and honour by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission? To study the work of great poets who have helped to define the First World War for us? To reflect on numbers of the dead so vast, so unfathomable, so indescribably cruel that your head reels and your eyes stare with incomprehension, beyond weeping?
Sad and exhausting it certainly was (although we also had merriment and good conversations with like-minded people in our group) yet you return with your mind freshly angry at the thought of the catastrophic carnage while your spirit is humbled and uplifted by the power, the pity of war. Two years ago we went (with the same group) to The Somme; this centenary year we had to make another pilgrimage.
A similar spirit of remembrance is taking thousands of people to see the powerful ceramic poppy installation at The Tower of London, knowing exactly what it represents as they stand silent before its beauty. We too were silenced at Tyne Cot, the largest cemetery (nearly 12,000 names) for Commonwealth Forces in the world – and also at Langemarck, where the total number of German soldiers buried or commemorated stands at 44,234. And each name invoking grieving mothers, wives, sweethearts, grandparents, children….
So in love, awe and gratitude we went to bow our heads before history and sacrifice. On Monday night we were present at the 29,744th ceremony of remembrance at the great Menin Gate in Ypres (or ‘Wipers’ as my grandfather called it, who was there). As the crowd of something like 2,000 stood to hear the Last Post and then the band of the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment played our National Anthem, I felt so very proud to be British. And I know that the fight to uphold and protect our values can never end.
AUTHOR AND DAILY MAIL COLUMNIST
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