The Thiepval Memorial stands weeping amid the rolling country around the Somme. It has a strange starkness, almost unromantic in its austerity. On the gentle slope below it lie a large number of war graves, the grass immaculately kept as all the war graves are. The Memorial bears the names of over 72,000 Allied soldiers who died in the second half of 1916 but who have no known graves. The birds don't sing at Thiepval; they do not sing anywhere on the Western Front, so it is said. One summer afternoon eleven years ago I sat near that memorial meditating beneath a tree in the silence. I could have spent hours just sitting there, unable to grasp what it must have been like for those tens of thousands who fought amid the noise and the fear and the destruction. Alas,time was far too short; I could only remain there for twenty minutes before going on to mourn at other blood soaked places on that unforgettable four day tour.
A different war, a different war cemetery, a different continent, but the same sense of desolation. Just off a major road along the Egyptian coast road is the Allied cemetery at El Alamein, sixty miles from Alexandria. The terrain is different, with brown sandy soil instead of grass; instead of green rolling countryside there is desert stretching as far as the eye can see, still riddled with the detritus of war. Like other war cemeteries the graves are immaculately cared for in rows as though they were still on parade. 11,886 lie under the burning sun, to be grieved from afar for it is not easily reached except by special trips. Very different surroundings but the same sense of loss, the same sense of mourning.
A third very different cemetery, Hill 107 on the north Cretan coast above Maleme. The stones are flat and square and amid the profusion of low flowers the dead are buried in pairs. 4465 soldiers of the German forces lie there, the slope reaching out mutely towards the deep blue sea before them. The same silence, the same sense of loss, the same sense of mourning. Grief after all is grief because war is war and the young died before they reached their full potential. After all, I have yet to find one person from cemeteries where I have wept that was older than my two daughters; many were a third of my age or less. The inscription at the cemetery reads 'They gave their lives for their country. Their deaths should always be our obligation to keep the peace between nations'. A noble aspiration at a noble place, an unforgettable place to weep but also hope and reconcile.
Three snapshorts of war. Each November we honour those who suffered and died all over the world (Judy's uncle for example was killed in Papua New Guinea in 1943). Remembrance is not about victory. It is not about celebrating. It is about remembering with sadness and with honour. Some may say that when the last veterans have died we should move on and no longer have acts of remembrance. But this is not the point. Remembering is also about the suffering of the world, not just those from our own nation and commonwealth. When I visited the German War Cemetery at Maleme all those years ago (while on holiday nearby) I felt the same sense of loss, the same need to honour those who lay there as I did at Thiepval or El Alamein and others that I have visited over the years. As we mark Remembrance Sunday this year we may remember those from other countries who fought and died, those civilians from other countries who suffered and died, those who were the victims of genocide. Mourn. In mourning use Remembrance to commit ourselves with others (who once were enemies but are now friends) to the cause of peace, healing – and reconciliation.