Armistice and Remembrance

A century ago, give or take a few years, a man was sitting in a comfortable car in Sarajevo with his wife and driver. His car took a wrong turn after some confusion with the itinerary so the convoy of which it was a part had to reverse down the street. Reversing down a narrow street in convoy is difficult, of course, so the entire thing stalled.
It’s easy to picture this scene, it happens in modern cities every day.  Some people take it in their stride, some become a little irate, there is a great deal of shouting and waving of arms as the knot slowly unravels and traffic begins to move again. Perhaps that should have been it. Perhaps that should have been the end of the story, a silly moment of confusion and a slightly annoyed man with, to modern eyes, a comically large moustache getting ever more annoyed until the mess sorted itself out.
It didn’t end like that though. Across the road another man stepped out of a café and, taking advantage of the confusion, strolled across the road and shot the Archduke and his wife to death. He was a Serbian separatist, infuriated with Austro-Hungarian rule, who had joined a terrorist organisation called the ‘Black Hand‘ some years previously and hatched a plot to kill Franz Ferdinand in the hope that a show of force would aid in their revolutionary struggle.
Of course that’s not what happened. The consequences of that day, the consequences of those two bullets, were horrors the likes of which the world had never seen. The scope and slaughter of World War one is hard to put into words. It saw widespread chemical weapons use, mass human wave attack tactics, drudgery, disease, famine, desolation and madness. The crumbling empires of Europe lumbered into action and engaged in the sort of total war that we, in the west, are unlikely to experience ever again. I live in England, where whole towns and villages were emptied of men and, due to the decision to allow these populations to stay together on the front lines, they never returned.
It is, luckily, an academic exercise to even think about it now. The generation who suffered so terribly in the trenches have all passed away. They left us their poetry, they left us lessons and first hand accounts, but they themselves are gone from the world, unable to speak to us save through the words they have left behind. We will never touch those times so, thankfully, we will never experience them.
Except… some years ago my grandmother came to live with us. She was in her nineties and, since my grandfather had passed away, had lived on her own for quite some time. We visited her as much as we could but, what with her living several hours away by car and her faculties beginning to fail, it was no longer realistic to leave her on her own. She was losing her marbles, poor thing, and as deaf as a post, and on the first night she stayed in my family home she missed a step and broke her wrist as she fell over.  The first night.  That should give you some idea of the venerable age she had reached. She made us laugh though, and her fondness for gin remained very much undiminished.
Her father had died when she was very young and she was brought up by her sister Edna. She rarely spoke about her mother and I have the impression that she was always too busy trying to keep them alive to spend much time with them. When she was four years old the Black Hand sprung into ill considered action and the British Empire dragged the men away to defend itself from the Kaiser. A short boat ride across the channel would have seen her enter a war zone.
As she stayed with us, at the beginning of the twenty first century, she began to regress. Little by little she became more confused and quieter, more childlike and forgetful. I had given up my bedroom for her, sleeping in the next room from her, and I would occasionally get up in the night if she was having difficulty.
Then she began to have night terrors. At first they were incoherent, but loud, as her deafness had left her fully capable, much to my chagrin, of shouting at the top of her lungs and not waking up. My sleep became interrupted and a bit messy, I never got used to it. Then one night, in the middle of the week, I heard her very, very clearly.
‘Edna! Help me! I’m scared of the Germans…’
This haunts me. It haunts me now as it did then. I felt like I was listening to history, like I was touching a time of horrors long gone.
This is what I think of at Armistice day, or Remembrance day, or Veterans day or whatever you call it. I can think about the young men who gave their lives, who still give their lives, for someone else’s cause. I can think about the vigour and the strength of the women who stayed behind and became mechanics and factory workers while the men were away. I can think about the poppy fields and the tragic madness that played out on them. I can think about the politicians, and the politics, and the death of monarchy. I can think about all those things, and I will feel sorry and solemn.
But I will never forget hearing the screams of a terrified child echoing across a century.