I went to see Peter Jackson’s new film ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ last night. It was absolutely incredible. The footage and sound were phenomenal and it was so powerful to see the men brought back to life. It was powerful because it injected life into the old footage that we often see and with that, it reminds us that They were just normal men.
The Army of the Great War was a cross section of society and we sometimes forget this. In the black and white archive footage, we see these men as solemn heroes bound by duty and sacrifice. In greyscale silence, they gallantly move forward into unknown dangers for King and Country… forever immortalised in that moment.
The reality was that these men who sacrificed so much were not angels or mythical beings, they were just men. Men who were doing a job that needed to be done. Laughing and joking, making the best of a situation, as any group of young men would do. When you face great struggles and trauma of any kind in life, people often say ‘how did you get through it’ and the answer inevitably comes back ‘I just did’ because that is life. Human beings are resilient, the most resilient of all creatures in my view and they will find a way to accept and survive in conditions that seem unimaginable. As we approach the end of the centenary I am keen to ensure that these very human aspects of the war don’t slip into myth, that remembrance doesn’t just become a poppy pin badge that has lost touch with reality.
I was very tired yesterday, I’d had a long day – 5.5 hours stuck on the M1 didn’t help, I was emotional and exhausted. Seeing this film helped me to remember why it is I’m on this journey, and I was reminded by a friend of this poem, Sick Leave by Siegfried Sassoon:
When I’m asleep, dreaming and lulled and warm,
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.
While the dim charging breakers of the storm
Bellow and drone and rumble overhead,
Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.
They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.
‘Why are you here with all your watches ended?
From Ypres to Frise we sought you in the Line.’
In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
‘When are you going out to them again?
Are they not still your brothers through our blood?’
‘They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine’ and I will be back with Them, next week.