Issue 10 – “Does Jean still remember me?”
There has been much written in the UK broadsheet press recently regarding how long we keep Remembrance Day going. There are those who argue that it is a pacifist’s reminder of the horrors of war, whilst others see it as a patriotic war cry for one’s sacrifice to crown and country. We are told to remember, ‘lest we forget’ and avoid making the same terrible mistakes that caused untold destruction, but the fact is that war continues in this world and this raises the question, are the aims of Remembrance Day failing? If nothing else, Remembrance Day has clearly prompted some interesting lines of argument, especially in the current context of the British ‘Brexit’ plight. As a historian, I know only too well how memories can be distorted over time and how history, and indeed wars, can be reshaped and retold to best suit modern day feeling. Should we instead simply forget and look to the future? Do we have a responsibility to remember the past?
We have been reminded over the past week, through a series of intensely moving and informative assemblies led by Mr Roberts, of the importance of recognising and indeed remembering the sacrifice of those who have fallen and in doing so, shaped both this century and the last. It also reminds us we not only remember those who died a long time ago, but also those in recent memory. The UAE commemoration day does just this as it recognises those who have risked their lives for this country. Watching these over the past week, what has struck me most, is the way that hearing these stories and sharing these experiences allows us all to connect with the past. We need history as individuals need memory. It is perhaps worth remembering that what we now term ‘war memorials’ were once originally called peace memorials, indeed the original poppies that we ‘wear with pride’ this time of year, originally carried the words ‘never again’. This term, in itself, is one that looks forward. In addition, we should also perhaps be reminded of the often quoted ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. Shamefully, this is often ignored or sadly forgotten.
Mr Roberts’ focus this year was on the 75th Anniversary of the D Day landings. Whilst engrossed in the messages and recollections of this tumultuous time, my mind wandered to my own relatives who fought during the Second World War. One grandfather died whilst piloting a Lancaster Bomber, whilst another was to survive the war and was able to tell me tales of his time during his service in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). I recently brought back a box of old documents, photographs and postcards from my Grandfather’s time in the war and decided to have a look one afternoon last week; my own private time of remembrance if you will. Reading through his service book I can clearly track his journey through the war. His involvement in the Tunisia campaign, the invasion of Sicily and lastly the Italian Campaign. It was during this last one that he joined up with the 6th Armoured Division which was involved in the Battle for Monte Cassino. There were four battles at Monte Cassino between 17th January to 18th May 1944. At these battles in Italy, 250,000 troops fought together to free Rome. British soldiers fought alongside troops from all over the world. They were connected in their aims, their values and their moral responsibility. It is this feeling of collectiveness that still remains during remembrance events throughout the world and surely a reason to remember. There were severe casualties during this campaign, but it was a defining victory for the allies in their attempt to free Italy from Fascism and a reminder that there were many important theatres of war that were pivotal in shaping history.
My grandfather was twice mentioned in dispatches and was proud to have served his country. I still have his medals and records, but most telling was a photograph of my grandfather whilst in North Africa, on the back was a message to his wife: ‘Does Jean still remember me?’ This was my mother, who was only 2 years old at the time. For my grandfather, the act of remembering was important even then. For him, he was remembering who he was fighting for and that responsibility, for him and millions of others, would weigh heavy throughout the war.
Dubai English Speaking College has a strong and proud history of commemoration and remembrance. This year, as with every year, a group of Year 9 students will again be travelling to the Battlefields of France and Belgium in order to pay our respects. There is always a sense of enormous pride to see our students attending the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres. Here they lay a wreath below the 50,000 plus names on the memorial that commemorates those British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed during the war but whose graves are unknown. They demonstrate enormous grace and humility in their conduct when visiting sites of enormous historical significance and it is a tradition that we plan to continue. It can, of course, be an upsetting and difficult topic to consider, but when we take the time to ponder what men and women in the past have lived through, the impact of these events on the lives of so many across the globe, and the devastating legacy of conflict not only should we not forget, but we have a responsibility to remember the past in order to hope for a better future.
Have a wonderful weekend.