The invisible soldier

I edited a book this summer and loved it. It was about the history of the LDS church in the St Albans area, but really it was about family history. I spent afternoon after afternoon looking at cracked and grainy photos of family groups, fascinated: Victorians in ruffled collars, navy men, women in fur coats with luminous eyes. And then there was Ernest.

There were two of Ernest, taken at the same time: one by himself, and the other with his wife and four tiny children. He is in his early thirties. He has a pencil moustache. His army uniform is so new you can almost see the starch. They took the photos, and then he left for the trenches. I imagine they took them in case that was the last piece of him they had.

It wasn’t, thankfully. He was lucky, or as lucky as you get when you’ve served at the Front. He came back, had another baby, resumed his life. He had a beautiful tenor voice, and sang in the choir. But his health was bad, now. Nine years after coming home from the mud and filth and gunfire, he was dead at 43. His oldest boy was fourteen, his baby only three. There are stories then about his son, forced to be the man of the house in his early teens. There are photos of them all as adults: the mother, the daughters, the son who had to take his father’s place before he was ready. The space where Ernest should be.

I read it, pushed away my computer, and sobbed, heartbroken. I won’t ever find Ernest’s name on a memorial, but the war came to find him just as surely as it found the boys in the fields. And so his wife, and his son, and his daughters were victims too. The war – this war, and all our wars – left fractures everywhere. So many of them were invisible, but no less painfully felt.

And so I find myself wearing a poppy this Remembrance Sunday because there are things I would say to Ernest if I could. I would tell him I was grateful. I would tell him that the life I lead is directly thanks to the choice he made to defend it. I would tell him they probably missed his voice like anything in the choir.

I would tell him that I remember.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!
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The poppy says ‘thank you’*

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Today is Remembrance Sunday, and I like to remember. I will never, ever forget visiting the Commonwealth cemetery in Bayeux a few years ago, and standing in the middle of white grave markers stretching miles in every direction. Behind every cross was a boy who died painfully and alone, a long way from home, and a family who had to make peace with his ending for the rest of their lives. How did they get out of bed, every morning after? That sort of courage should be memorialised.

And so I like to pay tribute to them, and to read war poetry and dress carefully and pin poppies on our chests. It really means something to me. This year we had the opportunity to help the Royal British Legion man the poppy desk in Tesco, and I enjoyed it so much I’d like to do it every year. We went all together, at first – I really want acts of service to be a part of our family life, and had this idea that Henry at least should see what we were doing. Then, after approximately four minutes, we realised that we were probably bringing the Legion into some kind of disrepute, and so Tim and Sarah took the boys home while I stayed for our two-hour stint.

It was just the best two hours I had all week. First of all, I discovered that the whole poppy transaction presents a particularly British problem of Who Should Be Grateful Here. They’re contributing money, so I say thank you. And then I give them a poppy, so they say thank you, and a pin, so they say thank you. And then I say thank you again to conclude before they leave. An embarrassment of gratitude, though I suppose that’s not often a problem Tesco has. It must make a nice change.

The second thing I realised was that Remembrance Sunday touches people just like it touches me. I was astonished by the number of people who donated, especially those who gave money without taking a poppy at all. There was a lady with a missing leg and a Help for Heroes bag, who buzzed up in her motorised wheelchair and asked me to pin her poppy onto her cardigan for her. Then the lady who dropped money in the collecting tin and said ‘I must give money to the Poppy Appeal. It was so close to my husband’s heart. He’s gone now, so I give it for him’. There was a catch in her voice, and I struggled to clear my own throat before thanking her (for the seventh time). Then the old man with broken English who asked me what the poppy represented. I explained, and it turned out he had served in the army and knew already, and was just checking that I knew as well. We chatted for a bit, then he asked me to pin his poppy on for him. You never worry more about accidentally stabbing someone with a pin than when you’re pinning a poppy onto a stranger’s thick-weave cardigan, let me tell you. He asked my name, I asked for his, and we shook hands very seriously before he left. I liked him, an awful lot.

The third thing that occurred to me, just as Tim arrived with a chocolate bar to take me home, was that being kind to people you don’t know is something that makes you genuinely happy, and I would like to find ways to do it more often. Well, duh. On a day when we commemorate those who gave up their own lives to make ours possible, I hope that’s a very tiny remembrance they would find appropriate.

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*this is the only bit of Remembrance Sunday Henry grasped, after about fifteen minutes of ‘um, so people were fighting…no, not Mummy fighting. No, not Sarah fighting. Ok, never mind’. This is why I’m not a primary school teacher.

Remembrance

Today is Remembrance Sunday. I am moved by it, always. I make a point of sitting down and reading war poetry, and trying not to cry too much. I keep coming back to that passage in Cymbeline – a middling and muddled late Shakespeare play which I love primarily for inventing the name Imogen, and for giving us this, the most achingly beautiful expression of loss I know. It resonates with me on a day like today.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave!

Here’s what Shakespeare wanted us to know: everything ends. But we need not fear our endings, however they come about. We are wrapped in the memories of those we leave behind, and what we find there is quietness, and sacredness, and rest.

Rest is what I’d give them, these men and women who fought our battles. Rest, and my remembrance; for those who came home to bear their burdens, and those who left their winter’s rages behind, out there in the lonely fields.