11 November 2014

Lest we forget

On Sunday I was part of our town's memorial service which was very well attended by all ages, creeds, and colours. It was dignified, thoughtful and moving. Three-quarters of an hour ago, as happens every year, a minute's silence was observed by students and staff at my school to mark the striking of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It, too, was pleasingly dignified and moving. It felt right to be part of those acts of memorial for those who have given their lives, or had them taken from them, as a result of war. I paid my respects but it made me consider how to truly honour their memory.

A couple of weeks back I went into London with my family to see "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red", otherwise known as the Tower Poppies. Two of them will be sent to us when it is dismantled.

My photo - there are thousands online that might capture it better

I found the scale of it staggering, as was the level of public response, but it did draw criticism from some quarters of the art world as being fake and trite because the beauty of the poppies was at odds with the experience of the soldiers (I always thought that was an importantly jarring effect) and it only considers British military deaths (one poppy per British military fatality). Although I accept the point regarding who it represents, I don't think it inappropriate given this is the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1. I also hold strongly to the idea that the value of art can be in part measured by its impact, and that has been extraordinary. So I disagree.

And yet.

And yet, I think it is right to question the way in which we commemorate the horrors of war that our forebears experienced, and far too many around the world today are still subject to. Commemorations are as old as recorded warfare itself, often as grandiose imperial monuments (I'm looking at you, Egyptians and Romans), but not always. The inscribed slab near Thermopylae (a 1955 replacement for a lost and damaged ancient original) has a famous epitaph for the fabled 300 Spartans who perished defending their homeland from the invading Persians. As with the Tower poppies, this monument does not refer to the others who died, were wounded, or suffered in other ways (allies, foes, non-combatants, women, or children), but it still has power for me:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, according to their laws, we lie

A permanent reminder, in the form of such a memorial, is an important first step. A literal memento mori, a Lest we Forget in stone or metal. But it is only a first step. The truest honouring of the fallen is a far more difficult monument to build, indeed it requires every one of us to continually participate in its construction. What is it?



  1. The "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red" display is a sight indeed and one that I imagine your boys will long remember!

    1. I certainly hope so, Gaz - it deserves to remain a strong mental image.