My mother’s father came back wounded from France in 1918, with a string of medals. His children used to play with them, but never discovered how or why he won them, because he never spoke of the war.
My grandmother’s brother William left his clerical job in South London in 1912 to seek his fortune in Australia. Took on a farm, found a girl, began to make good. When war broke out he joined up, crossed the world again, and disappeared into the carnage of Passchendaele.
On Remembrance Sunday, I’ll wear a poppy and remember, but I will always choke on the terminology used when referring to the dead and wounded of World War I. Whether they volunteered in a fantastical notion of comradely patriotic bravura, or whether they were pressed reluctantly into service by law or by social pressure, once they were in the field they had no say in the part they played, no control over their own fates. A refusal to advance meant a firing squad. A willingness to advance meant stepping into a hell where they would be shot, bayoneted, blown apart, gassed, crushed, shell-shocked, dismembered, ripped apart by barbed wire, drowned in mud, buried alive, or rubbed out by gangrene and dysentery.
Nearly 10 million soldiers were killed in World War I. I am content to remember that they were killed, much as if their country had gathered them up and fed them into a wood chipper. I don’t want to be fed lines about valiant heroic sacrifice. They did not make the ultimate sacrifice; they were the ultimate sacrifice. They did not give their lives for their country. They had their lives taken away.