Stories never told

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.

Excerpt from “For the Fallen”, Laurence Binyon

My mother’s father served in both World Wars. He died before I was born, but my mother says he never wanted to discuss the horrors that he was forced to experience.

And who could blame him? He’d been a young man from New Zealand shipped halfway across the world to be shot in the muddy fields of Flanders. He’d lain in agony in the mud, watching his friends die, hoping for salvation. He came home wounded and managed to start a new life, only to be sent away yet again for the sake of the country and commonwealth.

No wonder he didn’t want to talk about it.

And yet, people cope with trauma in different ways. My other grandfather served in the Navy during the Second World War. Some of my fondest memories are sitting on his couch while he regaled me with stories of the battles he had survived in far-flung places like River Plate and Guadalcanal.

My grandfathers chose to deal with their experiences differently, but there was one thing they did share. They had survived. And so did their stories. Not only the terrible stories of war but all the experiences that make up a life. Childhood, their school days, meeting their wives, having children, working and retiring.

Of course, millions of men were not so lucky. What happened to their stories? Laurence Binyon’s famous poem “For the Fallen” states We will remember them. But how are we supposed to remember people that we never had the opportunity to know?

“One of the group with tears shining in his eyes said, ‘Can you tell me Sir why good blokes like Capt Roberts, Ben Morris and Bert Goodlands and that fine kid MacCauley should be struck down?’”

pg.295, The Relief of Tobruk, W.E Murphy

That fine kid MacCauley was my great uncle, Angus Alek.

Alek, as he was known, was only 23 when he was killed during the North Africa campaign. The line in that book is one of the few mentions I can find of a life cut short far too soon. His generation didn’t leave a trail of memories across Instagram or Facebook. He was killed before he had the chance to start a family and share his own stories. All that remains are a few photos and letters, vague memories of my grandmother telling me stories about her “cheeky” older brother, and the knowledge that his body lies in a grave in Libya.

There were millions of Alek’s in the wars of the last century – lives taken in their prime, stolen by cruel twists of fate. We say we will remember them. We want to remember them.

But the people who made the ultimate sacrifice are the easiest to forget.

Because their stories were never told.

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