As I write a man is sitting in a prison cell in Kent for posting on the internet a picture of a burning poppy along with some distasteful remarks. I thought I lived in a state where people value liberty and where it is understood that causing gratuitous offence is bad manners and contemptible but not something a citizen should be arrested for. Obviously I'm wrong. When it happens in Russia or China our politicians get on their high horses and (correctly) complain of human rights abuses. They seem to be very quiet when the same kind of thing happens here.
My six year old was keen to watch the Cenotaph service of remembrance on TV - she had been learning about it in school - and so we turned the box on at 10.55 and watched the dignitaries laying wreaths. I was rather struck by the contrast between the royal family and the politicians. More or less all of the former have some experience in the military and several have seen active service. None of the major party leaders has, as far as I can tell, any experience of military life. In fact we have to go back more than thirty years to James Callaghan to find a Prime Minister who has served his country. Of course one can feel empathy without having any direct experience oneself, but I wonder whether it is easier to send troops to war when one has never been shot at.
My own family has in recent times been fairly successful at staying out of the firing line. If you exclude the Peninsula War and riding around Ireland in the Militia we've tended to keep our heads fairly low. Both my grandfathers were unfit for service in WWII and both joined the ARP. After the war my father got call-up papers to join the RAF, but deciding this was a waste of time, he promptly joined the merchant marine which was a reserved occupation. He should have stayed in the navy a little longer because on leaving he found, on receiving fresh RAF call-up papers, that he was still liable for National Service. This prompted him to join the National Coal Board for a few months - another reserved occupation - until he was too old to be pursued.
My great uncle George however, was in the thick of it. He volunteered in August 1915, served with the Royal Scots Guards and the Machine Gun Corps and saw action on the Somme. By the time I knew him I was just a little boy and he was a still quite dapper elderly man in the early stages of Parkinson's disease. My father later told me that prominent in Uncle George's war-time reminiscences were stories of rifling the pockets of German corpses for watches.
Also in the thick of it was my father's cousin Stalford Keith Mills. Apparently his real name was Stafford, but Stalford is how he is remembered by the CWGC and what it says on his birth certificate. He was a sergeant in the RAF flying on Whitley Bombers out of Linton on Ouse in Yorkshire. On May 12th 1941 his plane (Whitley Z6559 - probably built in Coventry less than a mile from where I grew up) was raiding Wilhelmshafen when it was damaged by a night fighter. The pilot ordered Stalford and two of his comrades to bale out into the sea near the Dutch island of Texel. Their bodies were never recovered. The Whitley, a 2 engined bomber, was notorious for being unable to maintain height on one engine, but, on this occasion, the pilot was able to regain control of the aircraft and managed to fly it back to the UK. More than thirty years later I remember listening to my grandmother with a tear in her eye telling me how Stalford had visited her on leave with one of his pals just a few days before he was killed: "They were just wee boys, sittin' in oor kitchen wi' a carrae oot". Wee boys drinking a bottle of beer about to be sent to their deaths in an aircraft that was already obsolete by the time the war had started.
Segue to Great Bircham, Norfolk in August 2012. We are supposed to be going to the beach, but a significant part of the household isn't ready so I go for a walk and end up in the graveyard of the parish church. An older man is cutting the grass and as I walk past I nod a greeting to him. To my surprise he stops the lawn mower and we exchange a few pleasantries. He has lived in the village all his life and has looked after the cemetery for almost 60 years. As well as the ordinary graves, the cemetery has Commonwealth and German war graves and my new acquaintance tells me that he has looked after the boys for longer than their own mothers. He then tells me the story of the single German grave in the middle of a row of Commonwealth headstones. This is very unusual and all of the rest of the German graves are in a separate plot. From time to time the powers that be had apparently tried to tidy up the remembrance process by digging up Emil Rodel and relocating him with his own comrades. But the parishioners fought to preserve the untidiness of history and the symbol of reconciliation that is former enemies resting in peace together. Before I know it 45 minutes has gone by and my now restless family are ringing to find out where on earth I have got to.
Eric Bogle is a Scottish/Australian songwriter. He's written several quite well known songs about WWI. The Gift of Years is one of his less well known ones, but, I think, the best.