I was moved by Chalcedon’s post. It reminded me that my generation has been very fortunate. My own father was too young to be conscripted in the war, although old enough to have been eligible for conscription after it. My husband’s family, on the other hand, has a military tradition going back to the eighteenth century; he, like his father, grandfather and maternal great-grandfather, is a career soldier. Like all such families there is a list of relatives who died in action, although the direct male line seems to have been remarkably fortunate.
As the Captain is once more absent, I went, on his behalf, to stand with the crowds at our local war memorial, head bowed, as at the eleventh hour the clock struck and we all fell silent. Although most there were remembering relatives who had served, and whilst the vicar talked of those who had died in the past, my thoughts were on the present and the future.
The wives of soldiers do not, in my experience, often talk about what it is our husbands do for a living; it seems like tempting fate. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away – blessed be the name of the Lord. That’s fine on paper and in theory, but I’d rather the Lord didn’t take my man – and every other army wife feels the same. Yet we know that someone’s husband or son will be taken, every time the ‘boys’ go away
Before meeting my husband, I was more or less a pacifist, and I remember how incredulous some of my friends were when they discovered what my boy-friend did: ‘But Jess, he kills people for a living’, was one of the choice remarks I recall. That, like so many other comments, illustrated for me, as it still does, the chasm which has opened up in our society between the military and civvie street.
For my husband, going into the army was a matter of service; it is what his family do. During the twentieth century, that was an experience endured by millions, and it brought with it into civilian life an experience of military life and what it was about. The Captain says he never met a soldier who liked to kill people, and that if he did, he’d have them out of his battalion as fast as he could. He and his men are there because they serve the Queen and this country. They stand, as they see it, between us peaceful civilians and something nasty happening.
But as time passes, and as military life becomes something esoteric for most people, days like today become more relevant than before in many ways. It allows those, the majority, with no experience of the military, to reflect on why we have armed forces and what they do for us.
The Army is a curious world. In many ways it reflects a Great Britain now receding into the past. There is still an officer class, and many of its members come from army families; there is a class divide between them and the men, but it counts for nothing at the front. These are men who respect courage and loyalty; they respect competence too. If you screw things up at the front, someone dies.
So, as I stood there, head bowed, it was those men – and women – of whom I thought, and to whom, as the bugler sounded the Last Post, I gave my thanks.