On Friday 1st July 2016, we will celebrate (if celebrate is the right word) the centennial of the Battle of the Somme. The battle which raged until November 1916, resulted in a million men either wounded or killed. Unimaginable numbers and a scale of slaughter which depersonalises the suffering. When so many are killed, the individual tragedies are somehow lost.
My old school keeps a register of every boy who passed through its gates from 1903 onwards. The register lists the house they were in, when they left the school and, where known, further details such as marriage, career and death.
The school had a strong academic reputation and parents queued up to spend much of their life savings giving their boys the best education they could afford. In January 1907, the register records that thirty six boys joined the school as bright young thirteen-year-olds. Some had brothers. Many were new to boarding school, perhaps waving tearful goodbyes to their mothers and fathers as the school gates closed behind them – much as I did a little over six decades later.
In the summer of 1911, a century ago and now passed into history, those boys left the school as young men, some heading for Oxford and Cambridge, others to Sandhurst where they would train to be officers. Confident young men, schooled to be leaders. Strong flag bearers for the school and their parents’ pride and joy.
In less than a decade, the world was a different place. As war tore through Western Europe, the old order was swept away. And a generation and its values with it. Of those thirty six boys who had stood at the school gates a decade earlier, ten were dead, killed in the mechanised slaughter that was the Western front. A lost generation. Three died on the Somme, young officers leading their troops across No Man’s Land into a hail of machine gun fire. Bright young things cut down in an instant. And three families more to receive those fateful telegrams from the War office.
For those of us who have never had to fight, their bravery is almost unimaginable, their idealism virtually inconceivable.
And so, at eleven o’clock on Armistice Day I stand in silence, this year as every other year. And I will certainly shake. Not because of Parkinson’s you understand. But because, through the fog of the generations, I will imagine those ten. Not as the confident young men who fought, but as the anxious boys on their first day at boarding school and as the confident young men they became. And I will think of my own son, the same age as those young men.
Pray God no more wars.