07 November 2013

We Will Remember Them

by Peter Ewart | Contributor

Armistice Day remembers the signing of the agreement that ended the First World War at 11 a.m. on the 11th November 1918 – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Annually ever since, it has stood to commemorate the dead of the Great War and subsequent wars fought.

I had the privilege of visiting the Somme in North Western France in late Summer. It is hallowed ground for many, Ulstermen and women included. The 36th Ulster Division was formed in part by members of the Ulster Volunteer Force who had raised arms in order to resist the introduction of Home Rule in Ireland in the years previous and who joined the recruitment call.

They – together with the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers – made up the Regiments of the 36th who saw devastating action at the Somme. The Ulster Tower outside Thiepval is a permanent memorial to those that had fallen on the surrounding ground. Many come to visit; long may that continue, for we have much to understand. For many it stands as a personal pilgrimage, tracing the stories of family members. For all it stands as a stark reminder of the cost of war.

On one level it is an unremarkable landscape: Undulating farming land, quiet with only birdsong interrupting the silence. However, look more closely. There are physical reminders of a near-century-old war, scars like the Lochnagar crater – one of the massive mine craters left at the beginning of the Somme battle – to remaining trenches and a subterranean world of kilometres of tunnels, untold pockmarks on the landscape.

It would be unfair to only mention the Ulster Division in relation to the Somme. Many other ‘Pals’ divisions served here as well, groups of friends that had answered Kitchener’s call to join up in late 1914 and who had been allowed to join and fight together also formed part of the offensive. They were joined by many other Commonwealth soldiers to, notably Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians and Indians too, and all of Ireland was represented in World War One, notably the 10th and 16th Divisions.

The story of the 1st July 1916 is one of the bloodiest days in the history of the British Army. Sixty-thousand British casualties were incurred, 5,500 of the 36th Ulster alone. Overall tactics are questioned to this day, but it is clear that a bombardment of German positions had not been nearly as successful as to allow the quick advance expected. Those who did make ground, and the 36th achieved one of the few initial successes, were not always able to keep their ground as neighbouring attacks were not unsuccessful.

Many of the waves going of over the top were cut down by German gunfire, the Germans' higher ground positions proving deadly. Such was the war of attrition that they found themselves in. Drive the road from Albert to La Boiselle and on to Pozieres and you are in the midst of the front line of a near five month battle which saw around one million total casualties, with the Allies eventually taking the higher ground at Ancre on 18 November 1916, in total an advance of six miles.

Loop around to Thievpal and a memorial of massive red brick arches marks the burial place of over 73,000 Allied soldiers missing or unidentified at the Somme. It is a remarkable monument.

It should be remembered for the brutal sacrifice it was. A war of gas, gunfire, shelling, drowning, disease and battling the elements. A war of incredible mental and physical endurance. While the numbers lost are barely comprehensible, each man has a story. Where it is known that story should be remembered.

Villages, towns and cities in the UK and Europe-wide were changed forever by a grueling four year war. There were close to 900,000 British military deaths, at the time with a population of around 45 million. In total, over five million Allied troops laid down for the last time in battle, another four million-plus on the other side. A generation of men from Europe and beyond lost. Frighteningly, those statistics were to be surpassed many times over less than a generation later in the Second World War.

A desperate irony highlighting the small areas and margins fought over in The Great War is that the first British soldier to be killed in 1914 and the last Allied soldier of the war to be killed in action on 11 November 1918 fell in the same town: Mons in Belgium.

Armistice Day of course is not just for remembering that first horrific conflict that engulfed all of Europe. Look at the Cenotaph footage this Sunday and there will be remembrance of the Second World War, the Middle East, Korea, the Falklands, Northern Ireland, the Gulf War, Bosnia, Iraq and those lost in Afghanistan. Many in Ulster’s thoughts will turn to Enniskillen too, and Private Lee Rigby, only this year killed on our own shores was murdered in a barbaric act of terrorism.

We must never forget. The generations that follow should be told of the sacrifices that have been made in the name of King or Queen and country. If they can visit Flanders' fields then they should. We should all read more of war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. We should remember because the lesson is invaluable, and to forget would be folly of the highest order.

Those who try to make political capital out of Acts of Remembrance show a complete lack of respect for the dead and show their own lack of humanity. You may not agree with the politics of war but honour those who have given their lives fighting for their country, those who have laid down their lives have enabled us to have to have the choices we today. Those choices include to choose not to wear a poppy.

I can provide no finer example of respect for the dead than the Fricourt German war cemetery near to Albert at the Somme. The dark wrought iron crosses strike a stark contrast to the white Allied headstones and crosses. Over 17,000 German soldiers lie buried there, 12,000 in four mass graves, more than half of those unidentified.

The cemetery is remarkable by its lack of visitors compared to the surrounding areas. There is but one wreath on display in that cemetery, laid by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The work of the Commission extends globally with the aim of remembering by name each of the Allied fallen regardless of rank or status. Government supported, they now extend to over 23,000 sites in 155 countries worldwide commemorating over one million Commonwealth burials from the First and Second World War. If you are looking to find out more about family members lost then their website may provide useful help.

Rangers again on Saturday will honour the fallen with a card display and a poppy emblazoned top. At war memorials in villages, towns and cities around the country on Sunday people will make their way to join in silent remembrance to those who were lost many years ago, to those who gave all more recently . Those who were fortunate to return and who served their country with pride. Those injured and affected after returning. Those currently serving their country in distant lands. And to absent friends.

Whoever you are remembering Sunday, remember them with pride and keep their story going. Lest we forget.