The drums will be beating, the pipes playing Flowers of the Forest. The bugles will sound the Last Post, and a silence will fall with the autumn leaves. Two minutes to remember millions. Bugles break the silence. Reveille sends pigeons flying over the roof tops.
Poppies on every coat, Flanders poppies, blood red. Veterans march past the wreaths of poppies at a measured pace under their banners, heads high, medals up, glittering in the morning sun. And their wounded comrades are there with them. For so many who have been to war there is a life lived with pain, with enduring grief, with memories that haunt. When the bugles die away, they are left with those memories.
This year it’s exactly 100 years since the guns fell silent, since the First World War at last came to an end. Europe and the world had bled itself to a standstill, millions upon millions dead and wounded on all sides, entire peoples traumatised. The war to end all wars had ended, but even in the peacemaking afterwards malign seeds were already being sown for the next conflagration 20 years later, the war that killed more millions, my uncle Pieter among them. I think of Uncle Pieter on Remembrance Sunday, as the bugles play. For me, Remembrance is personal.
He was 21, a fine actor, with his life ahead of him. Actor became a sergeant navigator in the RAF. He died when his bomber crashed at St Eval in Cornwall. Never to play his many parts again, never to be a husband, father, grandfather, never to fulfil his promise. Never to know those joys. He did not know me. I did not know him. He was a photograph on the mantelpiece to me.
I was a war-baby growing up after the Second World War in a city of bomb sites, playing my war games, witnessing my mother’s grief as she laid her poppy by the photo of her beloved brother; witnessing the soldier on the street corner, one trouser-leg folded up, empty, his hat and Jack Russell beside him. He wore his medals, and his blazer was smart. His buttons shone, his medals shone, his shoe shone. I think he was blind in one eye, because that eye never looked at me.
A Fleet Air Arm pilot, Eric Pearce, used to come to our house for tea, a friend of the family. His plane had crashed in flames and his skin had been terribly burnt. His face was remade by the great surgeon, Dr Archibald McIndoe (he was a member of McIndoe’s Guinea Pig Club). I used to look up at him in fascination and in awe. He was my wounded hero.
So I learnt in my growing days – long before I ever read Wilfred Owen or Edward Thomas, before I read All Quiet on the Western Front, or saw Oh! What a Lovely War – what war did to buildings, to people, to flesh, to uncles and mothers, to friends and families, to society and country, what war had done to nations and peoples all over the globe.
It took me time to understand there were millions of Uncle Pieters, of grieving families, millions like Eric Pearce, millions wounded in body and mind suffering still, and not just in our country, but everywhere. That war, even more than the First World War, had been a holocaust of universal suffering the world over.
I am 75 now. With others of my generation I still have a tenuous thread of memory of growing up in those postwar years, in a country and a family traumatised by war, but free at last of the fear of invasion. Thanks to Uncle Pieter and Eric Pearce, and millions like them, I’ve lived my life, as most of us have in this country, in comparative peace and prosperity and freedom. I know that if they had not held the line as they and their predecessors had done in the First and Second World Wars, then we should have been overwhelmed, and we should have been at the mercy of tyranny. There would have been no peace, no prosperity, no freedom.
They went off to fight for many and complex reasons, because country called, because pals were going, because it was expected of them, because they were told to. But once fighting, they wanted only to get it over, win, and come home, to live in peace. They fought, suffered and died then for peace, their peace and ours, not for us to make more war, unless there was absolutely no alternative, unless our freedom was again threatened. That was their great hope, to make a lasting peace, that might end all wars.
I wear white because they died for my peace
Now after more recent conflicts in overseas wars, in which so many died and have suffered since, we know how difficult it is to keep this precious peace. Our way of remembering them and their forebears in uniform, and the civilian dead too, is and must be personal.
Wearing the red poppy for me is not simply a ritual, not worn as a politically correct nod towards public expectation. It is in honour of them, in respect and in gratitude for all they did for us. But I wear a white poppy alongside my red one, because I know they fought and so many died for my peace, our peace. And I wear both side by side because I believe the nature of remembrance is changing, and will change, as the decades pass since those two world wars.
The names on the gravestones, cemeteries and war memorials will still be there, the bugles will call, the pipes play, but we will no longer be able to remember. They’ll all be unknown to us, these dearest ones, these dearest sons and daughters, dearest fathers and mothers, mere names, fading faces in photo and flickering black-and-white film.
But there are ways to reach them, to know them again. We can reconstitute the film, bring them new life in colour, as director Peter Jackson has in his film They Shall Not Grow Old. We can tell their stories, as I’ve tried to do in War Horse, Private Peaceful and In the Mouth of the Wolf. In book, play, music, song and film, we can try to keep the memory alive, and stay close to them in the only way now left to us, in our imaginings. This way we can be reminded of the suffering and pain they lived through, of their courage and camaraderie, and reflect again on the freedom and peace they left us, and so be ever more determined to cherish that legacy, and do all we can to keep the peace, and with it our freedom.
One of those who fought for our peace and freedom in the Second World War is Warrant Officer Harry Irons, DFC, Rear Gunner Bomber Command – he served in the RAF with my Uncle Pieter. I wrote for him the citation he is to read out at the Festival of Remembrance in the Albert Hall on Saturday 10 November.
“They came from our village, went to our school. They came from factory and farm, from city streets, down long country lanes, across wide wide seas, from all corners of the Earth. They came because country called, because they knew it had to be done, that unless they went to fight, there could be no peace.
“And still today they come forward, our soldiers and sailors, and airmen and airwomen, a hundred years on. They come carrying the torch for freedom, our freedom.
“We owe them, all of them, then and now, our thanks, our deepest thanks; but more than that, we owe them this assurance: that we will continue to care for all those brave men and women and families of our forces who need our support, that we will continue to hold high the torch of freedom, and make the best of the peace they have given us.”
Michael Morpurgo joins the BBC Philharmonic in a special concert commemoration, The Ballads of the Great War, on Friday 9th November at 8pm on Radio 2
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