Remembrance will not wither with time

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EXACTLY 100 years ago, a kind of peace had fallen on one of the Great War’s bloodiest and most horrific battlefields.

After three months of fighting, at a cost of a quarter of a million Allied soldiers killed, wounded or missing, what was left of the village of Passchendaele in the Belgian countryside had been captured and operations halted on November 10, 1917.

We will remember them. Graphic: Graeme Bandeira.

We will remember them. Graphic: Graeme Bandeira.

November 11 promised to be the first day since the end of July when troops would not be preparing for battle or ordered forward across a blasted, featureless landscape churned into a treacherous quagmire of mud by torrential rain and shellfire, in which men faced death from drowning as well as gunfire.

But it was only a kind of peace. Once more that day, the heavens opened, soaking the men holding the low ridge on which the ruins of Passchendaele stood and, as the rain fell, so did the German shelling.

There would be yet more dying for possession of that ridge in the months that followed, despite the assertion of the British high command that the battle was over.

We know from the letters home sent by the troops who fought for Passchendaele that there were no such neat distinctions on the ground. An official verdict that an offensive had concluded was no guarantee of survival.

And so November 11 to those men was just another day when shelling could obliterate them in an instant, with none of the meaning it carries for us all today, when we fall silent at 11am to mark the moment when the Great War ended a year later.

This was being explained by a teacher to a school party visiting the battlefield a few months ago, as the anniversary approached of the battle beginning.

The children listened with rapt attention, and I watched with admiration as they laid a wreath at the foot of one of the memorial panels at the huge and sombre Tyne Cot Cemetery.

No official ceremony of remembrance of the fallen could have had more quiet dignity than that group of teenagers brought to their tribute. After laying their wreath, they bowed their heads and observed a minute’s silence. At its end, most wiped away tears.

In that intensely moving setting, where the scale of the loss represented by the 12,000 graves and 35,000 names of the missing carved onto stone panels strikes home with overwhelming force, the children had found a real understanding of the importance of remembrance.

These were not the dry facts and figures of textbooks, but real people – often only a few years older than the students themselves – whose names were remembered, and who fell in the belief that they were fighting for the good of their country.

Many more tributes had been left in the cemetery, by other school parties. By students from Sheffield, Rotherham, Huddersfield, York and Beverley, they were laid at the panels commemorating the West Yorkshire Regiment and the East Yorkshire Regiment, both of which suffered grievously in the early stages of the battle.

How well those young people understand the need for remembrance was apparent from the words on a card attached to one of the Yorkshire wreaths: “Our generation has a duty to remember past conflicts and ensure that history does not repeat itself.”

A duty to remember. To learn the lessons of history. Those students – who I’d bet worked out the tone and message of their tribute collectively – go to the heart of what this remembrance weekend should mean to us all.

Today, and tomorrow when Big Ben’s renovation is suspended so it chimes at 11am to mark the beginning of the nation’s act of remembrance, there is a duty on us all to pause and remember.

To remember not just the bravery and sacrifice of the fallen, but to remember what they were fighting for.

One of the teachers leading his students around the battlefield told me that one of the tour’s great benefits lay in helping them understand what it means to live in a free country.

That’s something too many people – whether young or older – simply take for granted, never giving a moment’s thought to how different Britain might have been.

Remembrance is the opportunity to pause and reflect that the freedoms to think and speak as we please, to decide who governs us, form any relationship we wish, or learn without the taint of indoctrination did not happen by chance.

They had to be fought for and safeguarded from threat, and part of the price paid for them is set out on the memorial panels of Tyne Cot where young people who hopefully will 
never have to make such a sacrifice 
laid their tributes.

There is a greater appreciation of how hard-won freedom is in the European countries where the landscapes are dotted with 
memorials not just to the fallen of 
the Great War, but those of the Second World War.

In France, Belgium and Holland, there is a powerful collective memory of what it means to live under the jackboot of a malevolent occupying power. Here, we overlook how precious freedom is too easily.

But the school parties visiting Passchendaele have taken to their hearts the meaning and importance of remembering, that act of pausing for a few minutes in respectful silence.

In time, they will become the teachers of other young people, not only in the classroom and on visits to memorials of a century ago, but in their own families, passing on the message that the lessons of history should not only be learned from Europe, but from much more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is nobody left to bear 
witness to the horrors of Passchendaele, and the time approaches when the last voices 
from Dunkirk or D Day fall silent.

Yet Britain renews its annual act of remembrance with each new generation. As long as young people are moved to tears by the names carved on a memorial, our tradition of honouring bravery and what it represents, whether from a century ago or in our own age, is in safe hands.