One hundred years on, do we remember World War One?

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.”

The immortal words of Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ will be repeated up and down the country once more this Sunday as the nation takes a moment to remember those brave men and women who have fallen in service of their country. This year’s Remembrance Day will be a particularly poignant one, as it marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One (WWI), when the guns stopped on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, leaving the world forever changed by the ‘war to end all wars.’ However, while the terrible events of a century ago still resonate with many to this day, there are signs that their relevance is beginning to be forgotten in our modern world.

The memorial statues and monuments, erected so that those who died in the Great War may never be forgotten, are often missed in the busy hustle and bustle of everyday life, not appreciated for the message of ultimate sacrifice that they represent. Recently there was a great storm of controversy at the University of Southampton as Emily Dawes, president of the Students’ Union, tweeted: “Mark my word – we’re taking down the mural of white men in the uni Senate room, even if I have to paint over it myself.”

What Dawes failed to realise, or acknowledge, was that the ‘white men’ shown in the mural represented those students from the university who had gallantly given their lives for their country between 1914 and 1918.

Dawes’ ignorance of those who died defending her country has been condemned by members of the public, with over 1000 people signing a petition asking her to step down from her post. But how much was her lack of awareness indicative of a wider unfamiliarity or indifference among today’s young people?

Last year a study found that one third of 18-24 year olds in the country were reluctant to even wear a poppy in remembrance of those who fell in battle, with many suggesting that it is seen as a symbol of supporting war rather than remembering those who have died. A walk around campus reinforces this feeling of reluctance among young people, with only a minority of students sporting the red flower upon their chest. With symbols of remembrance, such as the white poppy, available to those who support pacifism, perhaps the failure to wear a flower upon the chest – like Ms Dawes’ ill-advised comment – is more a sign of a generation that feels disconnected from their ancestors who fell in battle 100 years ago, unable to remember those that they have never known.

This disconnect could be explained by the fact that our generation have grown up in a world in which there are very few survivors who remember the effects of the Great War, with the last British veteran from WWI having died six years ago.

While most who have grown up in this country will have encountered the war during their education and seen it represented in countless films and television shows, there is a distance from it that makes it difficult for some millennials to empathise with those thousands of men who rushed to sign up in service of their country. Many are unable to sympathise with the unquestioned patriotism that spurred their sacrifice, while others are unable to imagine a war of that scale of face-to-face conflict today.

However, whatever its cause, such a lack of empathy and remembrance does a disservice to those who gave their lives in order to fight for the freedom of our country and ensure that their descendants would not have to.

For those struggling to achieve empathy with these fallen soldiers, they need look no further than the 944 students from the University of Edinburgh who lost their lives during the war. Leaving their promising futures behind with a cocktail of fear, pride and excitement, they answered their country’s call to defend their loved ones, never to return again. You need only to imagine the effect that removing 944 students from today’s much larger student population would have on the university. Even now, it would equate to the loss of one in every 30 students, with many more wounded, changing the atmosphere of the university instantaneously and leaving 944 sets of grieving families, friends and partners with irreparable holes in their lives.

This horrific fact was reality for the WWI generation, with over a million British soldiers losing their lives in the space of four years, fighting to create the world that we live in today. It is important that we show them our respect. Even if it is in the hope that it will stop such a disaster from ever happening again, on 11 November we will remember them.

We are the British Boys

(A poem for remembrance)

We are the British boys,

Marching onto France,

We’ve said goodbye to our mums,

We’ve said goodbye to our aunts.

We know together we’re strong,

We know what must be our task,

For we are the British boys,

Marching off to save France.

All we can see is mud,

Seeping through all the grass,

Covering all from before,

Eradicating the past.

Explosions all around,

We hear the guns from afar

But we are British boys,

Marching in circles in France.

We didn’t think this would happen,

We didn’t think this would last,

But we are still in the trenches

And Christmas is well gone past

And we are left British boys,

Wishing for home from France.

Another battalion wasted,

Another battle farce,

How many boys must we lose

To this endless skirmish in France?

Over the top we go,

Over the top at last,

The boys with me side by side

We make our heroic charge.

But down goes Lieutenant Jones,

And down goes the boy named Scars,

The German machine gun mows

And we are no stronger than grass.

So, I say to you our descendants,

What was our sacrifice for?

Why did we lose so many

To such an aimless war?

For you our children’s children,

For you we gave our lives,

So you can live in peace,

To love your husbands and wives.

So think of us this November,

Remember our final advance,

Us brilliant British boys,

Who lie in the mud under France.

Image: Andrew Stanartz via Flickr

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