Two years ago the Canadian singer songwriter Lorena McKennitt wrote a song, The Breaking of the Sword. She was prompted to write the song, which imagines the feelings of loss and grief of a mother whose son had been lost in the Great War, after participating in the centenary commemorations of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in which many Canadian soldiers were involved – and many died.
She wrote: “When you lose a child, that unimaginable loss and longing is felt the world over. It transcends borders and cultures and time itself. I would like to feel the sentiment of this song is both timeless and universal.”
The song is a reminder that everyone who fights and dies in armed conflict is somebody’s son, probably somebody’s husband, maybe somebody’s father – and their death is a loss, because their life had a value.
On the morning of the 11th of November, the body of the Unknown Soldier was taken to Westminster Abbey. The Unknown Warrior was the idea of a Padre called David Railton who had served on the front line during the Great War. The union flag that he had used as an altar cloth whilst at the front was draped over the soldier’s coffin. It was his intention that all of the relatives of the 517,773 combatants whose bodies had not been identified could believe that the Unknown Warrior could very well be their lost husband, father, brother or son – because every life is of value, every death is a loss, and every bereaved person deserves recognition of their loss and their grief, and a focus for their feelings, a place to remember.
And so, we do need those tangible reminders of those whose lives have been sacrificed. The rows of crosses in war memorials carry a message.
But there’s a more significant kind of memorial that is required of us.
Those rows of crosses in our war memorials at the old battle fields stand like question marks at the end of awkward questions, that ought to be disturbing and challenging.
They ask: why did we die?
They ask: what have you done to respect the value of the lives that we have lost?
They ask: what are you doing so that there will be fewer of these crosses now and in the years to come?
These are not easy questions. Anyone who thinks that there are easy answers hasn’t understood the questions! But we live in a world where we have voices and we have votes and these have been purchased in many cases at no small cost. So the answers do not come from someone preaching in a pulpit. The answers to these questions are in our lives and our actions: remembrance is best accomplished by what we do, not just what we say. Remembrance carries with it responsibility.
Words from more than five decades ago, written by another Canadian, Buffy Sainte-Marie, remind us that much of what happens in our world is done in our name and with our complicity.
He’s the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame,Buffy Sainte-Marie, The Universal Soldier
But his orders come from far away no more,
They come from here and there and you and me,
And brothers can’t you see,
This is not the way we put the end to war?
These words still ring true: with Remembrance comes responsibility.