Thursday, November 05, 2009

Remembrance: fighting for our freedoms

A couple of years ago we went on holiday to northern France, just south of Boulogne.

It’s a quiet, unpretentious area for the most part, with a few seaside towns quite reminiscent of their English equivalents (kiss-me-quick hats, stalls selling fatty food, not a lot of sand). But even today there are reminders of the human tragedy that unfolded 20 miles inland, nearly 100 years ago, in the low, rolling hills of the Somme.

Some of the First World War trenches are still there – preserved, but their edges gradually softening with the passing years.

There is the 200ft-wide Lochnagar mine crater, where sappers attempted to drive back the opposing Germans with nearly 27 tons of high explosive: the 1916 equivalent of shock and awe.

In many ways life has moved on – the people of the small country towns go about their everyday business, the former battlefields have been turned over to agro-industry, their boundaries grubbed up to allow easy passage of tractors and combine harvesters.

But at almost every turn of every road is a graveyard, with its neat rows of white stones commemorating servicemen who fell in battle during the War to End All Wars.

In the Contay British Cemetery near Amiens is the grave of Private Henry Einar Dixon – great uncle Einar – who died on the Somme on September 19 1916, two months after the July offensive, when a trench caved in on him. He was 29, and like all his close relatives was a member of the Religious Society of Friends.

Einar was born in England, but had emigrated to Canada some years before. Family history is too hazy to tell us why. But he volunteered to return to Europe, and fight, with the Third Battalion of the Canadian Infantry (Central Ontario Regiment).

Einar had a brother – grandfather Hugh Dixon – who survived the war with honour. Conscientious objection wasn’t really an option then, even for Quakers. Einar’s gravestone is different among the uniform rows of 1,133 others because it has no cross – the Quakers don’t allow religious iconography, however simple.

Even as volunteers Einar and Hugh probably had little true choice about going to war, but there’s little doubt about what they believed they were fighting for.

They were fighting for their future – in other words for their families, for their descendants, for their compatriots, and for their freedoms.

Freedoms that we may sometimes find distasteful.

The freedom, for example, to write to The Bath Chronicle, as Tony Culver did last week, claiming that “the armed forces... have a bloody, unpleasant, nasty, brutish, barbaric, insensitive, stupid, idiotic heritage of slaughter and butchery.”

And the freedom of The Bath Chronicle to publish his letter without fear of censorship or suppression.

We should be proud that we can enjoy both of those freedoms, and more. We should be proud of those who have fought and died in our names, and who continue to do so. We should be proud, every November, to wear the poppies that commemorate them, and to respect the two minutes’ silence at 11am GMT on Armistice Day, November 11.

And Mr Culver should be grateful that he lives in a country which, whatever its imperfections, allows its citizens to write in the way he did.

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