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The difficulty of remembering the people we didn’t know

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 had the unlucky fortune to be born at a time that allowed him to serve in both World Wars. He died before I was born, but I’m told he never wanted to discuss the horrors he experienced – and who could blame him? A young man sent halfway across the world only to be shot in the muddy fields of Flanders. Watching his friends die as he lay in the mud in agony, waiting and hoping for salvation. Coming home wounded, recovering, and eventually starting a new life, only to once more be sent far away to help secure the safety of the country and commonwealth. It’s no wonder he didn’t want to talk about it.

And yet people cope with their trauma in different ways. My other grandfather was a great example. He served in the Navy during the Second World War and some of my fondest memories are of the two of us sitting at his table while he regaled me with stories of the battles he had survived in far-flung places with exotic sounding names like River Plate and Guadalcanal.

While the two men differed in their ways of dealing with the past they shared a common element – they both survived. And so did their stories. I don’t mean the horrible stories of war time, but the many experiences that make up a life story. Their childhoods, their days in school, meeting their wives, having children, working and retiring.

But what about the poor guys who went to war and didn’t come back? What happened to their stories? Laurence Binyon’s poem says We will remember them, but how can we do that when we never had the opportunity to know them in the first place?

“One of the group with tears shining in his eyes said β€˜Can you tell me Sir why good blokes like Capt Roberts, Ben Morris and Bert Goodlands1 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 just 23 years old when he was killed during the North Africa campaign. That line in the book is one of the few mentions I can find anywhere of a life cut short far too soon. His generation didn’t leave a digital trail of photos across Instagram or Facebook, and he was killed before he had a chance to marry or start a family and share his own stories. All we have now is a couple of photos and letters, the memories of a few stories my grandmother told me about Alek as a young boy, 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 and history. We say we will remember them. We want to remember them.

But the sad reality is the people who made the ultimate sacrifice, who gave their lives – they are the easiest people to forget. Because their stories were never told.

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