I have recently returned from a trip to the battlefields of the First World War in France and Belgium. We stayed in Ypres, Arras and Albert, and saw some of the sites of the most brutal fighting of the war including Passchendaele and sections of the Somme.
The area is perhaps best known for the memorials and vast graveyards for the lost on all sides, including Tyne Cot which is the largest Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in the world. We also visited preserved sections of the front line trenches, where you can see the tiny strips of land over which thousands of lives were all too often lost in just a few hours of fighting. You can learn so much about the war from books – but it is only when you visit the front lines, and confront the rows of headstones stretching as far as the eye can see, that the true horror and futility of this conflict begins to strike home.
This is not the first visit I have made to the region – I went on a school trip when I was about 15 or 16, and was studying the war for my GCSEs. I remember even then, as a young boy, being deeply affected by the experience, especially as many of those who died were little older than I was at the time.
One of the teachers accompanying that trip was Mr Hart, who went on to teach me A-level history, and stands out as one the most passionate, knowledgeable and engaging teachers I had the privilege of being taught by. I still vividly remember his advice to us, as we visited hosts of memorials along the western front – pick six names of those commemorated, and read them quietly to yourself. As he put it, “You don’t know when those names were last remembered”.
It was a powerful act of remembrance, and at the same time a way of bringing the vast, terrifying and impersonal scale of slaughter to the personal level of six individuals who had lost their lives. It’s advice that stuck, and as I travelled the memorials and battlefields a couple of weeks ago, I would always stop, identify a handful of names, and silently read them to myself.
I have argued before that understanding the past is important because it helps us make sense of our present, and shape our future. So whatever each of us feels about war, we should never forget.