Sorrow, Gratitude and Penitence: these three emotions dominate Remembrance Sunday. Sorrow, because wars cause so much personal and communal grief and loss. Gratitude, both because wars reveal, as well as some of the worst, some of the best human characteristics, and also because our way of life is what it is because it has been defended in war. And Penitence, because we often underestimate the damage war does even to those who survive, and because we too often fail to work hard enough to find peaceful ways of settling disputes, and sometimes even welcome the opportunity to fight. It is hard, even uncomfortable, to hold these three emotions together.
Similarly, military cemeteries are beautiful, sad places with a range of different messages for the many people who visit them. They may speak to different people of the enormity of impersonal loss, of the unbearable contrast between peace and war, of the courage and comradeship of warriors, of the price paid to protect our way of life, of the futility of war. They also of course speak of the intense grief of personal loss, and to underscore this there is in British military cemeteries a tradition of inviting bereaved families to add a brief inscription to the otherwise regimented gravestones. In the military section of Witton Cemetery in Birmingham, one family added to a Second World War gravestone this wonderfully simple and sincere inscription: ‘A tribute to a soldier who died for what he loved and believed in.’ I know nothing of the background of the soldier whose grave it is or of his family, but these few words seem to suggest a whole approach to life and to war. I don’t know if he left a final letter to be given to his family in case he was killed, but I wonder whether such a letter might have gone like this:
‘Dear Mom and Dad:
‘You already know that I will not be coming back from the war. It’s hard enough for me, and it must be almost impossibly hard for you, to grasp that this letter to you is being written by someone who, by the time you read it – if you ever need to read it – is no longer alive, cannot receive any reply, and cannot even be concerned about you. I can’t believe there is a life after death; in any case, I’m not sure I would want to be aware of not having the life I’d looked forward to, and I certainly wouldn’t want to sense the pain I know my death will be causing you. People will speak of my sacrifice, but in truth the real sacrifice, the real loss, is yours; you, not I, will have to live with my death. I can only guess at what losing a child must mean to you both, and especially to you, Mom, who carried me for nine months, gave me birth, fed me and saw me through the storms of childhood.
‘Knowing that you have been thinking continually of me has been a great comfort, both when time has hung heavy on me and when I have been in the heat of action. Now that I am no more, you will, I know, never forget me. I hope that, in time, you may remember the wonderful times we had together more clearly than the grief of not having me around any more – though I cannot pretend to myself that that grief will ever fade completely away.
‘You brought me up to discover who I was and what I wanted to do. I have always been grateful to you for showing me that example of courage and confidence. It’s what made me the man I grew up to be. I want you to understand, as I’m sure you will, that taking my chances as a soldier was a choice I made deliberately, in the full knowledge of what I was risking. If I am killed – and if you are reading this, I will have been killed – it will be as the man you brought me up to be.
‘I want you to know that had I survived the war I would have been proud of, or at least content with, what I have been and done as a soldier. I hope that you will be able to experience that pride or contentment on my behalf, and that it will in some small way compensate you for losing me and the hopes you invested in me. I have fought for a cause I believe in, and I hope that the world that emerges from this conflict will not be as bad a place as I feared it might become when I joined up; in that sense, my life, if I lose it, will not have been wasted. I have, I think, been a faithful comrade, and seeing men die beside me whom I have loved as brothers has given me an inkling of what my death must mean to you. And I have discovered it to be frighteningly easy to do what I thought would be the hardest thing in my life: I have killed other men.
‘The memory of those deaths would, I fear, have haunted me through the many years of peace that I hope you will see; certainly the son who would have come back to you would have been very different from the one who went to war. As I write this I hope to return from the war to live in peace, but what I most fear is not being killed so much as coming back to you a broken man – broken physically, broken mentally, broken morally. I realise that there is some selfishness as well as a kind of cowardice in that fear, because you would want me back in any condition, if only so that you could tell me and show me how much you love me. You now know that this fear of mine will not be realised, and I hope that that too will be of some little comfort to you.
‘I am sorry that all you will have of me will be your memories. I hope they will be a comfort in the years ahead. Thank you, both, for everything.
‘Your very loving, and beloved, son …’