“Makes you sick, doesn’t it?” he said, nodding towards the meaningless, pointless spray-painted scrawl that defaced one side of a stone cross bearing the simple legend “To the Unconquered”.
Yes, it does make anybody with a sense of respect sick to see a war memorial defaced by some baseball-capped moron looking for a blank wall on which to leave his mindless mark.
The stonework is pristine again now, thanks to the workman, but I wish someone had the means to scrub clean the psyche of whoever thought it was a good idea to vandalise it.
I take heart, though, from the conviction that he’s part of a very small minority. It seems to me that more people are pausing for a moment or two before war memorials these days, taking a few minutes to linger at landmarks they pass perhaps every day of their lives, to read the inscriptions or the names.
I’ve seen school parties on field trips listening attentively to their teachers explaining what the crosses and columns represent, and read leaflets from community groups raising funds and helping hands for a clean-up.
So many memorials were, for years, rendered almost invisible by their familiarity. They are so much a part of the landscape that too many people stopped noticing them, let alone reflected for the briefest of moments on what they represent, the sacrifice, the bravery, the loss. But people are noticing once more. Part of the reason has to be the long run-up to the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, with next Monday marking the day of Britain’s entry into it. Perhaps, too, last month’s 70th anniversary commemorations of the D Day landings played their part.
There is something else that has made the scales fall from the eyes of those who might once have hurried by on their way to work with barely a glance towards the memorial they know so well, or the wreaths that remain at its base from the most recent Remembrance Sunday.
It is the inescapable realisation that the memorials are as much a part of our present as the past, sacrifice, bravery and loss reaching down the decades through two world wars to our own times.
Too many names have been added to memorials in recent years as Union Flag-draped coffins have been flown home from Iraq and Afghanistan for them to remain invisible. As new conflicts began – whatever the public’s misgivings over their wisdom – Britain rediscovered its sense of gratitude to Armed Forces personnel who had made the ultimate sacrifice, and wanted to show it. The people of the village of Royal Wootton Bassett led the way, lining the streets to pay their respects to every one of the lost flown in to nearby RAF Brize Norton.
The announcement at the beginning of this month that £3m of Government money was being made available to renovate and repair as many as 10,000 memorials that have fallen into disrepair was a timely one, given the centenary of 1914. They should be kept in the best state of repair possible, venerated and cherished, as a mark of how much we value those they commemorate.
Looking after them with care would also underline that war memorials are not only about the lost, but also monuments to the bravery and sacrifice of those who survived, many of whom with terrible physical or mental scars, whether they be the dwindling band of Second World War veterans, or those from any of the conflicts since.
Memorials remind us that the lot of those who lived can be harsh. Wars are fought by the young, and can leave long years afterwards blighted for men and women who never flinched in doing their duty.
One of the most sobering statistics of the work of the Royal British Legion, the custodian of Britain’s acts of remembrance, is that of the 500,000 ex-service personnel and their families it helps every year, half are below pensionable age.
Many will be nowhere near it, but in their 20s and 30s, and the road ahead for them is a hard one.
The work of the Legion – and all the rest of the organisations who do so much help the casualties of war – is vital, and so is our support for it as well as our remembrance.
A veteran of the Falklands War, whose closest friend was killed right in front of him, once told me sadly of how he and his comrades viewed the public. “They’ve forgotten, you know,” he said. “Once it’s all over with, they just forget. I wish I could.”
Maybe they’re remembering more than he thinks. The Great War anniversary provides us with a reminder of why we should remember them all, whether from the fields of Flanders or the deserts of Iraq, and why we should give them just a moment’s thought every time we pass a war memorial.