Tag Archives: Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day – to forget would unravel our culture

The centenary of Armistice Day has prompted me to think about the symbols we use to remember those who fought and died in the service of their country. I have waited in the hushed silence before a dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux with thousands of others and it is a memorable gathering. I prefer visiting these cemeteries without the huge crowd, sometimes with my husband or daughter, treading softly so as not to disturb the resting souls, reading the ages of those who did not return, experiencing the feelings of being a mother, daughter, sister, and wife of a military person. I don’t want to touch these stones fearing I would release a barrage of ghosts.

The Cross of Sacrifice at Lutwyche cemetery, Brisbane

It is a sobering moment to walk along the lines of pale gravestones in the Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries in France reading the names, standing back to look at the rows set in lawn with narrow flower beds, usually with a cross erected nearby and in the larger ones a Stone of Remembrance. I feel shivers threading through my body reacting to the pleas from those hoping not to be forgotten.

Australian War Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux 

I am not religious and don’t practice a faith. My father, probably because he felt obliged, would drag my reluctant self and sisters, dressed in beautiful dresses and flower adorned hats, to Sunday morning mass and I can remember glaring at the image of Jesus hanging in pain and agony from the cross. Even as a child, I puzzled over why a faith which was supposed to inspire should choose a symbol of torture and pain. Surely there must be a better symbol for a faith?

Yet I am always moved by the dignity of the Cross of Sacrifice that stands in many War Grave cemeteries. I have found two crosses in Brisbane, one in the Toowong cemetery and the other in the Lutwyche cemetery. I started thinking about this cross with its simple design and the symbolism associated with it. After all a cross is simple isn’t it; two lines at right angles to each other.  Not this cross. The warp and weft of history and design that entwine the Cross are like ultrafine silk sending me as a time traveller ballooning across the aeons to Ancient Greece whose builders used entasis, the Greek rule of optical correction. The Parthenon is best known for this but it is speculated that earlier civilizations knew the effect of entasis when building the ziggurats in Mesopotamia and the Egyptians when building the pyramids. It is a curious link as Australian troops have fought in these regions.

In 1918 Sir Reginald Blomfield designed the Cross of Sacrifice and used entasis, to ensure the size was pleasing to the eye. The short cross arm is one third that of the shaft which tapers from the octagonal base. Set into the cross is a bronze long sword, shaft down. It is based on the Latin cross, used by Christianity as a symbol of sacrifice. The sword is an emblem of military honour, and is associated with the concept of strength and liberty. The shaft is pointing down indicating the battle is over. 

The two pieces of the cross are octagonal again providing links to many cultures in which the figure eight represented renewal and eternity. In early Persian gardens many fountains incorporated eight sides providing a link between the square earth and the round heaven as architecturally eight sides are required to link a dome representing Heaven to a square representing Earth. These shapes are often incorporated in church architecture both in the Christianity and Arabic world. I love these connections and think of them as those gossamer threads that are like the tiny money spider’s ballooning allow us to transcend cultures and religions.

Polygon Wood Cemetery

In cemeteries where there are over 40 graves you may also see the Stone of Remembrance designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. He also used entasis to ensure the stone would be pleasing to look at from any aspect. Neither the vertical or horizontal sides of the stone (3.5m long and 1.5m high) are straight. If these curved lines were extended they would create a circle over 549 m (1800 feet) in diameter. The stone, similar to a plain altar, which was traditionally used for sacrifice, worship or prayer, is placed on three shallow steps with the words, ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’   inscribed on the long surface.

On Remembrance Day, my husband will lay a wreath at Brisbane’s Cenotaph above Anzac Square and touch gently upon another poignant connection derived through the ages from the ancient Greek word, kenotaphion, through the Latin word cenotaphium,  to the French cénotaphe for empty tomb.

We owe it to the many millions who died and those who were injured to ensure theirs was no empty sacrifice.

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Remembrance Day 2016

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Never forgotten

Each night I get a dose of what my husband calls ‘war porn’.  No, I am not into video battle games or S&M in the bedroom this is what I see when I turn on the television and watch the evening news whilst preparing dinner.

The kitchen commando is particularly sensitive to what he perceives to be constructed war zone scenes and the excessive zeal of news correspondents dressed in combat gear.

I engage him in discussions on what he thinks is appropriate reporting, interrupted by the occasional critique, hurled like a missile at the computer screen.  His opinions I suspect are still based on experiences from the Vietnam War.

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Finding a Great-Uncle

I accuse him of being an armchair critic, safe in our bunker, whilst we watch whole communities disintegrating under enemy fire in far off sandy places. We see families wandering dazed from the bombardments their cities are being subjected to, with children being plucked out of rubble and raced to emergency vehicles. This is what he describes as soft war porn, ready images of the distressed individual, or the fighter wandering into the haze firing at unhittable targets. He dislikes the hyperbolic language used to present the ‘news’ for our voyeuristic delight.

More boring and less dramatically reported are the conditions that our troops are experiencing, the dust particles that tickle the nose, the energy sapping heat that makes you irritable, tired and less patient, the constant tension from always being alert to your alien and rarely welcoming environment.

Remembrance Day is a trigger to reflect on the service our men and women give to us in Australia and elsewhere defending and supporting the values and morals which makes this democratic country a safe haven in which to live.

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Reflecting on their sacrifice

Of course they are paid to do this, but when deployed they don’t leave if the conditions become uncomfortable and unsafe. They cannot turn away from the ghastly sights that unfold in front of them. War is brutal and horrible, there is no escaping from that fact. They don’t have a ‘trigger warning’ allowing them to distance themselves from this harrowing place they find themselves in. They cannot choose not to participate because it might cause them distress. They learn to deal with the issues, develop resilience and keep going in an environment that is often debilitating and toxic. But then they return home to a totally different world and sometimes find it difficult to convey to their families and friends the shattering effects it has on their mind and body.

 

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Villers-Bretonneux

In his tragic warrior, Ajax, the Greek tragedian Sophocles portrays the psychological wounds inflicted on Greek warriors after fighting in the Trojan War.   Twenty-five hundred years ago Ajax struggled to deal with the guilt over atrocities inflicted during that conflict.  This is often thought of as the first example of PTSD.

Living your life doesn’t mean that you spend your time in rosehip jelly, insulated from what we don’t want to see or hear about.  I watch friends coping with family  members suffering from PTSD and it isn’t easy. We aren’t living in a simulator where if it becomes too terrible we can turn it off and walk out of the room. No-one should have to deal with these ghosts by themselves.

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Today I will reflect not only on those who served and didn’t come home but on those who have returned and are dealing with life after what they have experienced. That can be just as challenging. No-one is ever the same when they return from the ‘Theatre of War’.

Remember those who served their country

Well I have managed to grow poppies that are flowering in my garden. Despite the rains this week causing the tall plants to tumble over each other, the delicate red and orange flowers are raising their heads, reminding me that Remembrance Day is here again. Mingled amongst them is the occasional yellow rose which also symbolises remembrance.These same poppies do appear each year all over France, on roadsides, fields and between cultivated crops. Poppies in field, France

I went to our Remembrance Day service and each year another thought springs to my mind as I listen to the same ode and the same music. Today I thought about the many people fleeing their countries because of war, failing economies and governments that restrict freedom.

For these men and women that I didn’t know, I will remember their service to our country, our nation and to us whom they couldn’t know. Their lives were given so that we should live in a world that allows freedom of speech and thought. A freedom that should not be taken lightly.

I don’t think I will ever forget the many manicured cemeteries scattered throughout the French countryside. Sometimes it seems there is a cemetery beside each road however minor. It is worth stopping and walking past their tombstones. They are a gentle reminder, chiding us not to forget.

‘When you go home, tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrow, these gave their today.’

      John Maxwell Edmonds 1875-1958

Polygon Wood, France

Polygon Wood, France

Hearing the words about loyalty and service to their country caused me to reflect on what these characteristics really mean. Sitting on my desk at home is my latest ‘Loyalty’ card. Loyalty is too easily trivialised into a point’s game aimed to attract my commercial loyalty to boost corporate profits. True loyalty remains even under extreme duress and absolutely awful conditions.

These still silent tombstones say it all.

These still silent tombstones say it all.

I reflect on the concept of service. The corporate brand of ‘Customer service’ that is a commercial tactic to increase profit hijacks the integrity of true service. Who considers service any longer? Are we proud of the Service to our country and nation the way these men and women once were? I worry that the collective commitment to our country is being diminished in the public debate that espouses the greater need of individuality and cultural and religious identity over nationhood.

Sitting here listening and thinking is a humbling experience. I haven’t been in a situation where I have been called to give service to my country but I am surrounded by many family members who have. My feelings reach out to other mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives who waited and worried. These feelings have been shared by generations of women and men not just for the 100 years since World War 1 (WW1) but forever.

The words of John Maxwell Edmonds were part of a collection of epitaphs for WW1 are an adaptation of words written by a Greek poet, Simondes of Cios 556-468 BC on the battle of Thermophylae in 480BC between the Greeks and the Persians.

Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,

That faithful to their precepts here we lie.

Red poppy

Lest We Forget

Polygon Wood Commonwealth War Graves

Polygon Wood Commonwealth War Graves

I am sitting in the hot November sun at the Remembrance Service and I still shiver when I listen to the words of ‘In Flanders Fields’ and the Bugler playing The Last Post and the Rouse

When I was 19 I walked the hills and beach of Gallipoli with my boyfriend but I was young and in love and the deaths that had occurred did not make me sad. I was too busy living. Over three decades later I toured many World War 1 battle sites with my husband and despite his enthusiasm and knowledge, I kept feeling revulsion and horror at the stupidity of the tactics that caused such enormous numbers of our young men to die. I was now a mother with a son in Iraq and Afghanistan and I could not escape the visceral pain that refused to go away until I knew he was away from that theatre of war.

Red tulips beside grave

Red tulips beside grave

It is a good thing to stop for a moment at 11 am on 11 November to remember those known and unknown who died or suffered for Australia in war and armed conflict. Listening to the music, I try to tally up my family’s military connections; husband, sons, fathers, mother, sister, uncles and great-uncles stopping around a dozen and that is only the immediate family. The military has been kind to my family who lost my Great-Uncle Lionel, killed near Fromelles. I read his name on the wall at Villers-Bretoneaux.

Susie below Lionel Young's inscription

Susie below Lionel Young’s inscription

Each year I plant some poppy seeds in my garden and watch with pleasure when they raise their bright blood-red flowers above the leaves. It gives me a feeling of connection and is a reminder, Lest We Forget.

Red Poppies

In the spirit of Remembrance and hope I scattered some poppy seeds through my garden earlier this year. My delight turned to dismay as I watched the young seedlings wither only to find out that my enthusiastic husband had mistaken them for clover and had been spraying them with whatever herbicide came to hand. I managed to wash the poison from a few of the plants which thrived and they began producing flower heads. Their next challenge was to avoid being drowned with love from my mother whilst I went away for a month. My daughter tried valiantly to tell Mum that poppies like a dry summer but nothing would dissuade my wonderful parents from determinedly watering my garden.

Naturally they burst into flower during that month in the UK so photos were duly exchanged of the beauty that I was missing out on by visiting my other daughter. I was quite sad about that but you can imagine my excitement in finding there were still a few beautiful red heads adorning the garden when I arrived home, very appropriately on 11 November.