In my country we have a day of remembrance on the second Sunday of November, the date closest to the 11th November, which was the anniversary of the end of the First World War. Artificial poppies are worn to commemorate the dead. Many of these poppies are made in Richmond, a town near to where I grew up. Less than 500 metres away from this factory I remember holding the flag as a young teenager at a remembrance ceremony, at the Richmond War Memorial. Standing there, by the river, on a sunny and quiet day in Richmond, it all felt so distant. Yet for my grandparents, and their parents before them, war was just a part of life.
Part of my family tree is from England. One relative I have was a Mr. Edwyn John Harrington. Born in Hammersmith in 1894 (coincidentally, I was born in Hammersmith 99 years later), and an engineer by trade, he of course took the call to fight in the war. The featured image is of Wyn (centre) as a Captain, smoking his pipe with his men. The man suffered a bullet wound, with the shot entering his cheek and exiting near his ear. This Sunday, I’ll make sure to remember him.
Edwyn fought for the British army and this Sunday those who live in the UK will, in unison, remember his and other people’s lives. We remember him and others through the poppies as they have been a symbol of conflict since the Napoleonic era. Importantly, the poet and soldier John McCrae wrote the emotive and sobering ‘In Flanders Field’.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Remembrance Sunday’s official purpose is to ‘commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts‘. Yet this Remembrance Sunday I can not help but remember the history of those in my family who did not serve in the British army. Who saw war from the other side, as civilians or perhaps combatants.
In April 1916, over 100 years ago, one of my ancestors died at just 14 years old. Christopher Whelan was shot whilst reading a book in his bed, by British soldiers who had reportedly gone to the wrong house when looking for insurgents in Dublin. His father, Lawrence Whelan, was arrested and held in prison for two days. I will be remembering the children in my family who died before their time, long ago. It makes me think of Yeats’ poem, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, a poem that brings a bit of nuance to past wars. In the first line Yeats gets something out of the way – the pilot will die. It seems he has more important things to talk about.
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
My grandmother was a Polish Jew during the second world war, who survived but went through trauma I don’t feel is appropriate to share. I will also be remembering that side of the family this Sunday.
The phrase I grew up on, attending remembrance ceremonies, was ‘never again’. A glory-focused Remembrance Sunday, that celebrates the soldiers as heroes and not ordinary people forced into a horrible situation, could negate the pain and sacrifice that they went through. I will not break faith, I will carry the torch, but I will also remember my own family history which happened outside the British army.