One hundred years since the cessation of hostilities at the end of the First World War, I found myself reflecting on what Remembrance Sunday really meant, to me and to the people around me. As a child, I was close to my grandparents, both of whom had served in World War II, both of whom had lost loved ones in that conflict. For them, Remembrance Sunday was a grave occasion, an important opportunity to stop and remember their friends who had not been so lucky and the freedoms for which they had fought. War, for them, was a real, living memory with direct effects on their lives. The "glorious dead" had names and faces, voices and laughter and on that single November day each year, my stalwart, Scottish grandfather would cry for them.
My grandparents' stories were many and vivid, bringing that long ago time to life for me and, in no small part, inspiring my passion for uncovering personal histories. I mourned with them for Will, childhood friend and billiard whizz who went down on the Ark Royal; for Len, best man and all round joker who died a Prisoner of War in Germany; for Betty, straight-talker and terrible gossip whose train home on leave was bombed. I mourned with them and yet, still, I felt that war was something far removed from me. I was fortunate. I had not lived it; I had not felt its terror and its grief first-hand.
Fewer and fewer people who lived through those massive, bloody conflicts are here to tell their stories today. So it is incumbent upon us to remember for them, to wear our poppies (red, white, purple or otherwise) and to explain to our children and grandchildren why it is important. But, exactly what should Remembrance Sunday represent for future generations, 100 years on? As any historian knows, time muddies the waters. Complicated shades of grey become white and black, good and evil, us and them; stories are spun, horror is muted, slaughter is glorified. The task of remembrance by those who cannot themselves remember is not a simple one.
In all my years as a genealogist, I have never ever researched a family whose history was untouched by war: the Boer War, the Crimea, the Pogroms of Eastern Europe, the Spanish Civil War, World War I, World War II and all those that came after. Men, women and children killed, injured, traumatised, displaced; those who did not come back and those who came back changed physically and mentally by what they had experienced; those who grieved for people lost, for places and communities destroyed. Though war might reveal heroic acts of courage and selflessness, it is not glorious. It is catastrophic.
So, on this, the centenary of the end of World War I, let us remember every life that has been and continues to be marred by war. Let us honour their stolen sacrifice by doing everything in our power to prevent history's continuous, destructive repetition. Lest we forget the plea of the first Armistice Day: the message we should tell our children this Remembrance Sunday is clear: