Lest we forget… what it is we’re trying to remember.

11 11 2013

Listening to CBC’s coverage of Remembrance Day (it’s a public holiday here in BC – not just the nearest Sunday as in the UK).
Interesting how WW I was seen as “a grand adventure” at the time. Boys as young as 9 years old trying to sign up, pretending to be 18. Boys as young as 10 actually succeeding! Wearing an older brother’s clothes. The lack of TV or the internet hid the true horrors to most, unless they were directly involved. The idea was alluring – the reality brutal. A cruel way to grow up.

Just started reading John Buchan’s “The Thirty-nine Steps”. Didn’t realise he was the Governor General of Canada for a while. A very British book, yet page 1 mentions Vancouver. Kizmet! It’s a book I’ve wanted to read for years. My copy is an ex-school reader. Printed in 1951. Issued three times to schoolgirls in Pontefract, W. Workshire. Fell into someone’s “missing” list in 1954. It was originally written in 1915, and there’s definitely that air of high adventure, going off and fighting wars as almost “cool” – an urge thankfully more often filled by extreme sports today.

But that still raises the question why we seem so genetically pre-disposed (even under more sedate circumstances) to risk the lives that are so briefly given to our custodianship. Perhaps it’s as simple as a quote I recently read, attributed to feminist writer Rita Mae Brown: “If you’re afraid to die, you’re afraid to live. You can’t have one without the other.” We love to play games. We like to win. But you cannot win without incurring the risk to lose. To risk ones life – the ultimate wager – is to perhaps truly win one’s life. Perhaps we no longer need to fight to the death, thanks to ever more inventive “extreme activities”, but we do perhaps need the risk – or at least the perception of it – to truly feel alive.

Whatever their reasons for choosing (or being forced) to go to war – many did not return. I am saddened this year to read more nationalism than ever being expressed both here and in the UK around remembrance day. It has steadily become more about “supporting today’s veterans” than remembering the futility of war. There are huge centennial events being planned for 2014. Ieper/Ypres is expecting a bumper tourist trade for the whole 4 year period. The UK is planting millions of poppies across the whole country. I flew through Dusseldorf airport this last week, proudly wearing my poppy. I wore it to commemorate all those who lost their lives in war – particularly WW I – not as some nationalistic jingoism. It was not intended as a snub to the German people, though one older security checker gave me a gruff snort when he saw it. They felt no less horror and loss than did the allies. I object to history programmes referring indiscriminately to “Nazi troops” in reference to WW II, when in fact the bulk of German combatants were decent, honourable men fighting for their country just as their opponents were. The Nazis were in political power, but many of those dying in German uniforms were no more politically in favour than their enemies.

Let us remember.

Remember the fallen. All the fallen.

Remember that it was politicians who sent them to die and continue to do so.

Remember that it is power, greed and money that drives the decisions to conquer and invade, and for others to fight back in defence.

But remember also that many are oppressed by their own politicians and struggle to find tools other than weapons to resist.

Remember the solitary figure that stood in front of a tank in Tienanmen Square, and caused it to stop. A tank!

Remember how Gandhi sat and spun cotton… and evicted the British from India.

Remember that a gun is just an elaborate machine… that requires a human hand to turn it into a weapon. The same hand that can turn a cricket bat – designed for fun – into a weapon.

Remember we are the problem. Only we can be the solution.

Remember to choose.





Lest we forget

11 11 2012

As a long time scout, I remember dutifully attending Remembrance Sunday services in the UK as a kid, and being told off for sniggering as The Last Post was rendered almost unrecognisable by some poor kid with lips frozen to his bugle.

When we moved to Canada, I was slightly taken aback with how much more respect is paid here in BC. It was almost as if the UK was apologetic for having to remember. The only attendees at the cenotaph in the UK would be the scouts and guides and maybe the local city Councillors. Maybe a couple of parents, but certainly not a big thing.

Here in White Rock, the entire town turns out to watch. The ceremony is on the 11th – no matter what day of the week it falls. Not on the nearest Sunday as in the UK. The parade includes the local air and sea cadets, the RCMP, the fire service and representatives from all the various scout and guide groups in the town. There’s even a fly-past from the local flying club, and it’s definitely “a big thing”. It never fails to leave me feeling humbled.

WWII started as a European thing. Britain couldn’t NOT get involved. But Canada? Canada could very definitely have kept itself to itself and let things on the other side of the world play out. The US in fact did just that for about three years. I read a review of a Canadian TV series called “Bomb Girls” about munitions workers in WWII. Apparently US viewers were confused because Pearl Harbor was the big story item in the last episode of the first series. It would seem that some US viewers had no idea the war had been raging for years before then.

Thankfully they did enter though – Britain (even with the amazing support of its dwindling empire) was on its last legs. They were showing “The Battle of Britain” film on TV this afternoon. There’s a classic line from Sir Lawrence Olivier as Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, when he’s being pressed to verify the astonishing figures of the number of bombers being downed by the struggling RAF in October 1940:

“I’m not very interested in propaganda. If we’re right, they’ll give up. If we are wrong, they’ll be in London in a week!.” Incidentally there were 112 Canadian pilots helping in the Battle of Britain… as well at 7 Americans. Despite the US still being neutral at that point. They were all part of “the few” referred to in Churchill’s famous speech.

It’s usually a cool day. Rainy often. Occasionally windy – I remember one year the wreaths were continually blowing over. But today it snowed. Only a little, but enough to remind people of the discomforts weather can bring.

I have been to Flanders. To Ieper/Ypres (depending on whether you’re a Flemish or French speaking Belgian). I’ve seen the Menin Gate and been astonished at the thousands of carved names. Then astonished afresh to learn that this seemingly endless register of lives lost records only the brave souls whose final resting place is not known. I have seen the traffic stopped at 8pm – every day since 1918 except briefly during WWII – and heard the Last Post played by the local Fire Service and the second stanza of Ode of Remembrance read.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them





What’s in a name?

13 08 2012

So while we were holidaying in Victoria, I suggested we visited the nearby lighthouse. Its name/location was a bit vague, but good ol’ Google came up with the answer “Fort Rodd Hill“. In hindsight a pretty big clue, but nevertheless it was with some surprise that when we turned into the car-park we saw not a lighthouse (though that was indeed there, tucked away out of sight) but a pretty extensive decommissioned military installation!

Even now, I am sometimes struck by the youth of Canada – especially here in the West. The source of place names are often still very much tangible. Fort Rodd Hill is still quite obviously a fort! I know, I know, it does sound obvious, but if you’re from “The Old World“, the connection between a place-name and its original reason for having that name isn’t always so blindingly obvious. I grew up in a place called Silsden in West Yorkshire, UK. I remember at the age of about 8 being told by a teacher that the name was a contraction of “Sigle’s Dene”, meaning steep sided valley run by Sigle, the local warlord… or something equally unlikely. Nearby Skipton was “Sheep Town” and to this day is a market town. Well, you get the drift of my point.

The armed standoff of U.S. and British forces during the San Juan Islands Pig War of 1859 led to a steady increase in the Esquimalt naval location used by the Royal Navy for its Pacific Squadron.  When Russia declared war on Turkey this sparked the Great Eastern Crisis in 1877-78, which focused attention on the lack of defences for Britain’s only naval station on the western seaboard of the entire Americas. By 1898 a pretty extensive set of battlements was in place including a rather nifty 6″ disappearing gun which used the gun’s recoil to power the gun beneath the protection of the defences for reloading.

With the approach of WWII, the defences were revamped and a more rapid firing gun was put in place to handle the faster modern torpedo boats.

Though much of the building is the original 1890’s concrete emplacements, the place has an eerily modern feel to it. I guess its age is given away more by the quality of the finishing rather than the basic architecture and functional design. Even though this was built only as a military location, the solid concrete walls have neatly rounded edges and attention to detailing around the few inward pointing window-frames.

There’s a lot to see, with three separate gun batteries, a gas-proof targeting command centre, searchlight emplacements, kitchen and barracks. Set in well kept grounds with nature trails too, it’s an interesting way to kill time on a sunny day.