Tomorrow, at 11am, I will be standing in our local village along with veterans of all ages and representatives of the various youth groups that keep our children active throughout the year. We will stand in front of a memorial made of white stone set in perfectly tended grounds with flower beds and a small gate to keep the place secure. You could step over the gate or the low wall either side, but people don’t. They just don’t out of respect. It is a place set aside, like many across the world, to mark a spot and record the battles fought and those who fell and came from our village.
In some parts of the UK the memorials are large, and rightly so. During the First World War many soldiers were recruited from small towns and villages. They called them Pal’s Battalions. The regimental band would come to the village hall or church and play inspiring tunes. A well turned out Recruitment Sergeant would address the young men of the village and try to instil patriotism and esprit de corps. Young girls would encourage the men and boys, for many were still under the age of 18, to protect their country and way of life. The result, through pressure, bravado, a sense of nationalistic pride and the threat of being branded a coward, created recruitment drives that netted over 400 new soldiers from small communities all over the country.
During the various offensives in the early part of WWI, new battalions were ‘sent over the top’ to walk in straight lines towards machine gun fire. With each battalion that was wiped out, a village, oblivious to the carnage, was crushed emotionally and economically. Of the 6 million men sent to war, 700 thousand died. How many were wounded physically and mentally we will never know the true extend of the damage.
So, when I stand facing the memorial tomorrow, watching my 13 year old son stand in cadet uniform with his friends, another of my sons who is currently serving and stationed 600 miles from our home, my friends who have died in uniform, and looking at the names on the memorial in our local town, I will reflect on the poor young men who walked in to hell with a smile on their face and song in their heart.