As I sit here once again gazing at the candle by my tablet, I am reminded of all the candles that have been lit last week to commemorate those who fell in the two World Wars and conflicts since.

For many: as World War One and World War Two are so long ago now, they were remembering deceased ancestors, who they probably never met. For some: they were remembering close family members who died in recent conflicts and for those in the armed forces, comrades in arms who fell beside them in battle. We are all remembering those who were victims of the horrors of war and the sacrifices they made, willing or otherwise.

To truly remember of course you would have to have experienced the carnage personally yourself or to have personally known someone who died in one of those conflicts. For the rest of us we cannot imagine the horrors. But we still take time to pause and remember and hopefully say a prayer for peace.

These remembrance ceremonies tend to be military occasions with flags and uniforms (armed forces or auxiliary services). Though I am sure they are remembered at this time, there is little emphasis on all the civilians who suffered: the victims of bombing and concentration camps, ethnic cleansing of one kind or another, the refugees and migrants, the victims of military occupation and the re-drawing of maps.

In recent times, the ceremonies have places less emphasis on military glory so much as remembering the cost, incalculable though thecost is: not least the severely wounded and mentally scarred trying to rebuild their lives and their families and loved ones trying to support them. A recent survey showed that a majority of the homeless in our cities are ex-members of the armed forces with mental health problems.

I am reminded of my own family. My father and his younger sister were aged 7 and 4 when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Eventually when Russian forces occupied where they lived (in what is now Lithuania) they were transported with their mother and grandmother to Siberia. When Russia joined the allies they were released and gradually moved through Russia to Tehran in Persia (now Iran) and were re-united with their father who, having been freed from a labour camp was now once again a diplomat and in charge of placing Polish refugees in camps. He arranged for my father and the family to go to India (where the most comfortable camps were and where my father kept a pet mongoose and went tiger hunting and where his sister, my aunt Barbara, danced in Polish costume infront of an audience that included Ghandi). Eventually they came to the UK and settled in Nottingham and my father came to Teeside and married my mother and here I am. His sister Barbara married and eventually emigrated to Canada. It all worked out for them in the end – or did it?

I think that deep down inside they never stopped being refugees. The effects of their war experience echoed through their lives. They found it difficult to settle which came out in a variety of ways which I will not go into here save to say that they both suffered from forms of depression and that, at times in my life, I have too. My father is no longer alive but I visit his sister on Vancouver Island nearly every year. She is a colourful, generous and highly extravagant lady for whom money has had little meaning. But then, as she reminds me occasionally: when you have been a little girl dumped in a Siberian village begging for potatoes, money has no meaning. ‘Learn Neil’ she says, ‘learn.’

It is not enough to remember: we have to learn from the past too.

Jut before we joined the European Community in 1974 (when I was student) I vividly remember the Daily Mirror reprinting a cartoon from VE Day in 1945. It was by Lowe, the famous cartoonist of the war years who was renowned for his caricatures of Churchill. The cartoon showed a horrific battlefield and a lone wounded soldier trying to reach up to a blackened sky. The caption underneath read ‘Never Forget’. It was therefore, the Daily Mirror’s powerful visual statement in support of the U.K. joining the European Community. Many readers of the Daily Mirror at that time would have gone through the war and may have seen that cartoon when it first appeared. The cartoon was reminding us to learn from the previous conflict. The newspaper was underlining that joining the Common Market (as the EU was then also called) was not just an economic strategy but also a means of ensuring peace, a peace we have enjoyed in Europe for over 70 years.

Between 2014 and 2018, there were numerous programmes on television about the First World War. I am unsure whether this was before the Brexit referendum in May 2016 but there was an item on the local London news where Nigel Farage was taken to the World War One battlefields and the cemeteries there. He was visibly moved and in tears. But why could he not learn from what he saw, from the history all around him? Why could he not connect?
It is not enough to remember: we have to learn from the past too.

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Neilus Aurelius

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