Thursday, 13 November 2014

Remembering. Dangerous? Disrespectful? Disappointing?

From being a child and hearing stories of sacrifice, bravery and loss during World War 1 I have been keyed into the "culture" of remembrance. My Granddad's tinted photograph of him on his cavalry mount, with his medals in the frame, was ever present. I was magnetically drawn to it. A brave soldier in times long ago-it seemed to me and even at six I was history mad. Ben Cowan left the world three months after I entered. I don't have any real memory of him but my dad, Nannie and aunts kept his memory alive with stories-so much so I almost believed I knew him.

I recall hearing the soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia on the radio when I was about six. Oddly, I felt sad and the music made me think of Granddad. I don't know if this was subconscious but I later discovered he had served in Palestine and had actually seen TE Lawrence. He had spent 1914-18 on the Somme and then was deployed to the Holy Land where he remained until 1919. He was finally shipped out ill with malaria and dysentery. 

That connection with Granddad continued-I was shown a memorial at Barrow Railway Station-there was another Cowan. William Cowan Border Regiment it said. He was Granddad's brother and had worked for Furness Railway, like Granddad. He had been killed in 1917. Later I discovered another brother (he was one of 12 siblings), Bob, had died in 1916 on the 5th day of the Battle of the Somme. These ghostly figures-wafted in and out of my consciousness, only to be remembered when I had to undertake a project in 1st Year at the Grammar School on World War 1. 
Ben Cowan 4/7 Dragoons

This time information and a picture came from my aunt. Another brother lost to the conflict. This time my Nannie's. I became fascinated in my family tree and this young man Gunner John Wilkinson began to grow in my mind.Many years later I finally managed to piece together more and more information about all three and my sister treated me to a War Graves trip for my 40th birthday.

I began to understand why my usually tough dad cried at the Remembrance services and always wore a poppy. The gap between the generations narrowed. These "boys" were no longer ethereal shadows, they took on form and reality and their lives blossomed into proper biographies. As I stood next to the graves at Wimeraux, Faubourg d'Amiens and at the Thiepval Monument (Bob had not been found) their short lives resonated.  I had two boys of my own-how would I have coped with them not coming back from war? How would I have watched them go in the first place? Then, looking at the thousands of graves stretching across France, how many other mothers must have suffered just like my great grandmother? Suddenly, the impact hit and I could see the vast enormity and horror of what had happened so long ago.
William Cowan 1st Border Regiment
This experience was life changing for me and I have tried to pass it onto my own children. Its a vain hope that we can learn from this fairly recent history-after all 100 years in terms of family isn't that long. It can be easily dismissed if one doesn't know the human stories and trivialised and it seems to me its our responsibility to tell those stories to our children. I shared Michael Morpurgo's War Horse and Private Peaceful with pupils and we read the account of the Christmas Truce of 1914... all a little dramatic and sentimental. All a bit overblown and heart rending. But dangerous? Disrespectful? I don't think so. They were aimed at inspiring an emotional response, yes even sentimental, but not in a bad way. Yet the new Sainsbury's advert has been attacked for just those reasons-and of course because of the commercial purpose of an advert.
Gunner John Wilkinson RGA

Personally, I think we have to use every means possible to engage children and the general public. We want them to empathise and understand. In these days of horrific brutality and constant conflict people are almost desensitized and if this advert and the Tower poppies allow people to step back and say "Wow! I didn't realise how many died" or think "I won't vote for any government who implements an illegal war" then I don't care how schmaltzy or sentimental the means are. These things are memorable and make an impact. Its easy for commentators to declare that these things "beautify" or "trivialise" I don't believe they are right.
Bob Cowan 8th Border Regiment
Yes Sainsburys has made an advert. Yes theyre making money. But they are donating money to Royal British Legion! They are drawing attention to a relevant piece of history. I think people are missing the point! Its all meant to leave a bad taste in the mouth and its meant to play with the emotions! Its horrific to think human beings can put aside difference for a moment and then return to killing! Its poignant because its underlining this aspect of our very flawed nature! It also brings the devastation and futility of war to a new generation of people who connect with youtube videos. Maybe it will give people pause for thought...
"Imagine there's no countries It isn't hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion too Imagine all the people living life in peace"
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