On 5th July 1915 a young bank clerk from Hereford was enlisted as a private in the Royal Fusiliers. Within a year of active service he was transferred to the officer cadet battalion, and on 13th October 1916 he was posted to the 217th Machine Gun Company as a second lieutenant. The Machine Gun Corps as a whole was known as the suicide club because of the high casualty rates. This was because gunners stayed to the very end of an engagement to provide cover for those around them, and therefore many died at their post.
This young bank clerk served with his company until 16th August 1917 when he was wounded in the forehead and the shoulder. He was taken to the military hospital where he recovered from his wounds. Unfortunately there he contracted mitral disease which severely weakened his heart. He was invalided out of the army and sent to a hospital in London for further treatment. On 3rd November 1917 the authorities removed his temporary commission, and he went back to working in a bank until his retirement many years later.
That young bank clerk was my grandfather, Reginald Buckley, and he never told of his wartime experiences. But then again, neither did so many people who witnessed the horrors of World War One, both on the Western Front and elsewhere. Yet even though they never spoke directly of what they saw, I believe we need to keep telling the stories of those who served. For in many ways the stories of both those who fell and those who returned are the stories which have shaped our all lives, and even if we have no direct connection with the war that was supposed to end all wars, we still owe a huge debt to the sacrifices they made.
Of course not everyone was a hero. My other grandfather told his mother, who was living in Liskeard, he had been sailing round China for six years. In reality he was based in Devonport at HMS Vivid for all but 18 months of the war, and for the rest of the time was stationed in Hong Kong. Why he never went back to his mother during those six years is one story that perhaps has been best forgotten.
And that, I suppose, is a reminder that while we rightly remember the contribution of all our armed forces, we need to also bear in mind that today we are not celebrating some heroic ideal; we are commemorating real people. Some gave their lives willingly and courageously, some simply did what they could in the most appalling of circumstances, some sought to preserve their own lives above all else. I often wonder what I would have done if I had been enlisted. That they served out of whatever motives to gain freedom and peace for others is enough reason to thank God for what they did, and to commit ourselves to the cause of working together for that peace which He wills for all of humanity.
Because that in the truest (and Biblical) sense of the word is what remembering is all about – not simply making sure we do not forget but looking to the past to learn lessons for the present and to gain a vision for the future. It is through remembering that we receive wisdom and hope. And in today’s age of fleeting soundbites and instant communication the call to remember is one we need to heed more than ever before, for the sake of us all.