Today – Remembrance Day – people across the globe will pause for reflection at 11am on 11.11.11 – a poignant combination of figures on a poignant day. Every year in our school assembly around this time I talk about remembrance, and I firmly believe that it is quite right to do so – we should never forget the people who gave their lives so that the lives of others might be better, nor should we forget that it is up to all of us to ensure that war, fighting, and terror disappear from our world.
And we will best remember this when we remember the consequences of war – of the millions killed and injured, and those whose lives have been devastated as a result. In helping us to do this, the work of one organisation is key: an organisation which seeks to keep these memories alive, lest we forget -the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Today, the Commission takes care of the graves and memorials of 1.7 million men and women from across the Commonwealth who died in the two World Wars. In all there was a total of 1,146,918 burials. Picture these graves laid end-to-end: the line would be about 2,300 kms long – a horrific number, but it does give us a better idea of the enormous task that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission carried out then, and continues today.
It all began when, at the beginning of the First World War, a man called Fabian Ware, too old to serve in the army, arrived in France in September 1914 to lead a mobile unit of the British Red Cross. He very soon noticed that there was no one in charge of marking and recording the graves of those killed. He understood how distressing this was both for relatives at home and for those still fighting, to think that lives had been sacrificed and then the bodies just left to rot in some anonymous field and he decided to make sure this was not allowed to happen. In order to comfort relatives, the newly founded Commission quickly completed some experimental cemeteries, using the best architects and garden designers to make the places ‘less miserable and unsightly.’ At Rouen, the writer Rudyard Kipling (who himself had a long association with the Commission) described ‘the extraordinary beauty of the cemetery and the great care that the attendants had taken of it, and the almost heartbroken thankfulness of the relatives of the dead who were buried there.’
Today, there are Commonwealth graves and memorials in 148 countries across the world. It is always hard to imagine numbers on this scale when we talk about the dead of the two world wars – and these are only the people who died. Still more difficult to imagine are the numbers of parents, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, the girlfriends, the boyfriends and the neighbours left behind to pick up the pieces of their own lives after suffering the loss of someone they loved.
War is devastating. As the number of survivors of the World Wars gradually fades, it is up to us all, each one of us, to remember this.
There will be no peace
till attitudes change;
till self-interest is seen as part of common interest;
till old wrongs, old scores, old mistakes are deleted from the account;
till the aim becomes co-operation and mutual benefit rather than revenge or seizing maximum personal or group gain;
till justice and equality before the law become the basis of government;
till basic freedoms exist;
till leaders – political, religious, educational – wholeheartedly embrace the concepts of justice, equality, freedom, tolerance, and reconciliation as a basis for renewal;
till parents teach their children new ways to think about people.
There will be no peace: till enemies become fellow human beings.