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Expert comment: Armistice Day

Poppy Friday 11 November 2016

As the nation pauses to reflect on Armistice Day, Lecturer in English Language Dr Manel Herat looks at words of valediction on the gravestones of men who gave their lives in the world wars.

“Their story lives on, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.”
Captain Elmes Patrick Trevelyan Green (age 30)

An estimated 16 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives during the First World War, with many more suffering both physically and mentally. The effects of World War I and II have had far reaching consequences leading to global socio-political changes. As we remember and reflect on the timelessness and the enduring quality of the words engraved on their tombstones, which record the suffering and courage they endured, we can draw analogies with our own time and take heart in their courageousness and bravery.

Some common themes emerge from the writings of the bereaved: they talk about honour, courage, bravery, sacrifice, consolation, patriotism, youth, love, life and death. The epitaph for Private Clive Austin (age 19) speaks to the determination to finish the work that he started; to bring peace to the world: “His task is finished, ours just begun, to bring peace, we shall not fail him”.

Anderson et al (2007) observe that in a way gravestone epitaphs are like photographs of the day that are left behind for future generations to interpret. Regardless of whether the gravestones are ‘magnificent’ or ‘mundane’ they serve as remembrances of the deceased – who or what they were, what they did, what qualities they possessed, what they stood for and what reputation they have left behind on earth. The following epitaphs for Pilot Officer, John Frederick (age 17) and Warrant Officer Robert Stewart (age 23) speak of their good character through references to their adherence to a Christian way of life and, like many epitaphs, show the fallen soldier as the upholder of Christian values and a brave soldier for Christ: “He challenged those who destroy the innocent and the way of life he loved so well,”

Pilot Officer John Frederick (age 17): “He was a cheerful Christian boy, loved children and all small creatures.”

The epitaph for Flight Sergeant Harry Ernest (age 19) on the other hand shows the utter despair and desolation of those left behind, and the way they try to alleviate their sorrow and sense of loss by drawing on their religious beliefs for solace and comfort: “My son, my son! Would God I had died for thee” II Samuel, XVIII.33.

At the same time, memories of the war and death also reiterate the soldiers’ courage giving a snapshot of the bravery, and the heroism of those who died in battle such as the epitaph for Sergeant William Henry (age19): “Willingly, courageously, he fought and fell, a hero in the battle of the skies.”

As passers-by meander through rows of gravestones, noting details in passing, occasionally pausing before those that are of particular interest, gravestone epitaphs speak affectingly to all of us, parents, wives, husbands, siblings, friends, colleagues and even children as we remember those who fell and empathise with the sorrow of our counterparts from two generations ago as well as those suffering from the loss of war today, as this epitaph for Warrant Officer Dennis Lorenz (age 26) shows: “Remembrance is the only immortality we know”.

Thus as we commemorate those brave men and women who sacrificed their lives to bring peace to the world, we can take courage from the simple words engraved on the epitaph of Pilot Officer, Robert Burlington (age 23) which declares: “May the free peoples of the world always unite to fight tyranny”.

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