Cambridge Letter: Wars, then and now

The context in which wars are waged may have changed, but we still need to remember individual courage and sacrifice.

November 14, 2009 04:44 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 07:06 am IST

On Sunday morning the parish church in our village was full. The occasion, on November 8, was Remembrance Sunday, an annual event devoted to remembering people from the village who lost their lives in the 1914-18 and 1939-45 World Wars. Remembrance Sunday services took place, as they do every year, in churches throughout the country. Those whose lives are remembered include the men and women who have died in conflicts since the Second World War.

This year, the services had a particular poignancy because during the summer the last two survivors of those who served in the armed forces during the 1914-18 war died — Harry Patch, aged 111 and Henry Allingham, aged 113 — as I recorded in my Cambridge Letter in September.

During our service, a long-serving member of the Salvation Army played the bugle call at the end of a two-minute silence — as he has done each year for many decades. Another resident in the village read the list of names of the local people who died in the two World Wars. These two, both in their eighties, served in the forces during the Second World War.

At the other end of the age scale, three young residents, aged 10, 11 and 12, members of the local Scout group, read, with feeling, words of remembrance, which reminded all present of the importance of remembering by those who have no personal knowledge or memory of the war.

Contemporary reminders

Another reason why the services throughout the country have had a particular poignancy this year is that there have been many deaths of service people serving with the NATO forces in Afghanistan.

These deaths, reported almost daily, are seen against a background of serious doubt about whether NATO, and specifically the UK and the US, should be engaged in this campaign. A recent survey commissioned by the BBC, eight years after the military operation in Afghanistan began, indicated that 56 per cent of those polled were against Britain's involvement. In the US, too, public commitment has been wavering.

Annual remembrance services are not, and were never intended to be, celebrations of war. Rather, they are designed to celebrate, and remind people of, the courage of the many thousands who have lost their lives in war. The context in which wars have been waged, however, undoubtedly affects public attitudes.

For people in the UK, the two World Wars, and particularly the Second, were widely recognised as battles for survival. We were only too acutely aware that the national values that were crucial to us were under threat by the Nazis. (I say “we”, because I was old enough to be very conscious of this.) That did not, of course, make the suffering and loss of life of those who served in the armed forces less real, or less dreadful, but it did mean that the cause for which they were serving, and in many cases losing their lives, was a cause for which there was general support.

Different priorities

In the UK it is important to understand that this view of what the war was about was, not surprisingly, not shared by all the countries fighting on the same side as Britain, and losing many courageous people whose sacrifice we also remember with gratitude. On the Indian sub-continent, for example, the priority was independence. Nehru made the point with great clarity in an article in the National Herald in 1938: “We want to combat fascism. But we will not permit ourselves to be exploited by imperialism… We will not and cannot forget our own struggle for freedom” ( From Writing a Nation , edited by Nirmala Lakshman).

The growing doubts in Britain about British involvement in the war in Afghanistan have caused people here to look with much clearer focus at what is marked by the solemn ritual of Remembrance Sundays. They remind us of courage and sacrifice, and the pain of families of those who have lost their lives in war, and they remind us that the courage, and sacrifice, and pain are just as true when the war is controversial as they are when it has general support. What we are remembering is not war, but the courage and sacrifice of those caught up in it.

At the Remembrance Sunday service in our village, as I wrote at the beginning of this article, the church was full, with significantly more people attending than a year ago. I believe that the deaths in Afghanistan have served as a grim reminder that the consequences of conflict are not history, but a present day reality.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at : >

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