In August 2014 I stood in St Symphorien Cemetery outside Mons in Belgium to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.
It was here that the first British soldier to die on the Western Front was buried. Private John Parr was killed on 21 August 1914, the first of hundreds of thousands of young men who lost their lives in France and Belgium.
Right opposite him in that same cemetery is Private George Ellison, the last British soldier to be killed, during the morning of 11 November 1918.
He was a pre-war regular soldier who had managed to survive several terrible battles over the previous four years and who came so close to returning to his wife and son in Leeds. The placement of their graves is entirely coincidental but reinforces a popular myth about the pointless nature of the conflict: after all that fighting, they stopped exactly where they started.
Why should we remember?
Ever since that day four years ago I have attended many centenaries, of First World War events, large and small. Throughout them all I have asked myself what is the point of all of this.
Remembrance is one of our most important national duties. In a democracy the men and women who march into battle do so on our behalf, at our request, expressed through our elected leaders.
Remembering their sacrifice is an essential act of citizenship. Ultimately the use of violence is all of our responsibility and we must commit to support those veterans when they return and their families when they do not.
Remembrance is also intensely private. I think about Robert MacMillan, yanked from a perfect childhood on an Ontario farm, and his studies to become a doctor, to be thrown into the terrifying tedium of the Battle of the Atlantic.
In his requisitioned cruise liner, he ploughed the grey sea lanes between Halifax, Derry, Belfast, Liverpool and Plymouth, always waiting for the impact of the torpedo that would send his vessel straight to the bottom.
His Chief Engineer once assured him that if the old ship was struck, she would sink by the time he had put his foot on the ‘first rung of the ladder.’ I think about Robert, my grandpa and childhood hero, and how the war changed him. He never went to a reunion, and never put on a medal. I never got a chance to ask him why not.
Remember, don’t repeat
Remembrance should go further. We need to remember just how we were plunged into total war with its genocide, destruction and chaos.
If we do not remember how the elites of Europe so disastrously miscalculated in 1914, and how the Axis Powers in the 1930s thought that their national destiny lay across the battlefield, then I worry that we will be tempted to repeat.
The First and Second World Wars were catastrophes. Remembrance of them has nothing to do with glorification and everything to do with warning.
The horrors of the Somme, Gallipoli, Kut, Dunkirk, or the battle for Normandy, the destruction of Coventry, Tokyo, Dresden, the murder of millions in death camps, the barbarity of the Nazi-Soviet war, the treatment of the Armenians, the forced migrations that followed the Second World War in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent need to remain as fresh and vivid to our children’s generations as they are to us. We are capable of monstrous things.
Remembering the price our past greed, hatred, racism, nationalism, egotism and savagery, is a first step in avoiding a repeat.