Remembrance Sunday. The canon fired from Edinburgh Castle, booming out across the city, the smoke slowly dissipating over the ancient battlements in the following silence. After a period of years when the national silence seemed to have been relegated to the history it was designed to remind us of it is good to see most people now observe it once more. Apart from a couple of loud Scandinavian tourists who probably didn’t know what was going on, the people in our bookstore fell quiet, early Christmas shopping forgotten for a moment. Most people still wear poppies to show their respect, the first flower to bloom in the fields of Flanders after the slaughter of the Great War, almost as if the blood of so many young men had stained the very flora of the earth.
I’d like to share something with you. And old friend I often think of at this time of year, a very dear old man called George Deary. George was an old yet spry man when I was a young boy in the 70s. Semi-retired, George liked to do a little work in the enormous family garage my father worked in then (how large – well they made coaches from scratch, so pretty big). He was a very gentle, endearing and genial old man and he and his lovely wife doted on me and I loved visiting them and hearing their stories. This quiet, modest, unassuming old man who looked like he’d never handled anything more deadly than a bowling ball had once been something remarkable, even in a time of remarkable deeds. He had been a Commando.
Like most old soldiers George never really spoke much about his experiences, except in the most general terms. If they do speak of the events they experienced, they most often do so to others who have shared them. The rest of us simply don’t have the right frames of reference for them to discuss it. The fact that we don’t is due in no small part to the fact that people like George sacrificed so much so we would never have to experience what they did. Occasionally little bits would slip out.
Sometimes he’d do things which reminded you of what he had been. Once he laughed at bragging young apprentices all trying to show off in front of each other, as young all-male groups often will. George simply tapped one on the arm with his finger and paralysed his whole arm for ten minutes. He didn’t need to posture or boast about what he could do. I once saw this wee old man take an egg from a pan of boiling water with his bare hand. What the hell must this man have been in his youth? I saw only a genial old man in his twilight years but these little glimpses would make me wonder about the things George had done. Needless to say he was one of my childhood heroes. I don’t doubt for a second that George would never have thought of himself as a hero. Perhaps in the classical meaning he wasn’t. He was a perfectly ordinary man. But one who had accomplished extraordinary feats, not to be a hero but because it had to be done. Now that is heroic.
Looking at all the old men parading past the war memorials the breadth of the land I think of what these people saw and had to endure decades ago. We see only old men, because they have grown old while their comrades who fell are fixed eternally in the youth which was taken from them “they shall not grow old as we who are left grow old… At the going down of the sun we will remember them…”. Their Herculean efforts secured for generations to come a free world. There are fewer each year now – after all next year will see the 60th anniversary of D-Day; men who were 18 on that remarkable day are now nearly 80 – and it is a shame more have not told their stories, that they will be lost with them. There are many fine histories of course – Keegan and Beevor spring to mind – but the experiences of the actual folk who went through them should be recorded before they are lost. I think I learned as much about WWII from reading Spike Milligan’s memoirs as I did from my more orthodox histories. Maybe if more of the current US leadership had fought for the nation instead of draft-dodging in the 60s they wouldn’t be so keen to engage in more warfare.
George has been gone a long time now, but I still think of him. I still think of the things this little old man once did which gave me a peaceful and free country to grow up in. And I feel terrible every time our leaders decide we have to use military might to accomplish our goals because it feels like each time we do we betray the very goals George and his generation fought so ferociously for. Flanders was nearly 90 years ago now, but that iconic line of blinded soldiers, stumbling across a mauled ridge, arm on the comrade in front of them, are still with us. They march invisibly through every conflict since that awful war and their bandaged eyes see every atrocity. They shake their heads and wonder is this what we gave our lives for? One day that image will be just an image in a history book and there will be no more conflicts for their haunted souls to walk through. That would be the finest tribute we could possibly build.