The Colour of Memory

Tuesday, November 11, 2014 0 comments

Lest We Forget

When I was growing up history was something that permeated our house.

There were books and photos, and old records.

There were fossils, models, maps and artifacts.

I was always interested in military history, because the military and warfare runs like a horrible bloody thread through the history of civilization. Didn't matter if it was ancient history, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Celts, or Mediaeval sieges and battles, or 18th and 19th C wars, or the great upheavals of the 20th C. I was interested in them all. There was one thing that I remember very clearly though and that was the major difference in the way my Father treated the wars of the 20th C compared to those of history.

These wars were different, they were different because they were still MEMORY not just HISTORY. My Grandfather fought in the First World War and I had friends whose parents had fought in the Second.
The Ghosts of these wars were not ready to be history yet. They were real people still living, still working, still hugging their loved ones and trying to live with the MEMORY of chaos and destruction that they had been forced to live through. They also struggled with the memory of those they had lost.

British troops negotiate a trench as they go forward
in support of an attack on the village of Morval
during the Battle of the Somme. Photograph: PA

As a kid my strongest impression of the difference between the Wars of History and the Wars of Memory was simply that History had colour whereas the modern wars of the 20th C were BLACK and WHITE.

We had photographs of these titanic struggles in all their gritty horror, you could see the face of war in its terror and its destruction, but there was no colour. That made them real in some senses but strangely unreal in others.

The Thin Red Line. 93rd Highlanders at Balaclava.
Illustration for Scotland for Ever (Hodder and Stoughton, c 1900).

The wars depicted in the history books were often illustrated in colour paintings, romanticized,
propagandized, draped with the colours of empire and the gloss of academic history. The Wars of living Memory were written of that way but they were illustrated with photographs that gave a glimpse of the true nature of war.

The first time I saw colour photos from the Second World War I was shocked, these were real people, they looked my age, they were not the Black and White ghosts that I had seen for so many years. Along with the colour came the realization that these great upheavals had been filled with REAL people who smelled the earth, the smoke the blood and the death just as I could.

Suddenly War changed from a historical event to a mass tragedy, necessary sometimes but never something to take lightly. Suddenly to stand with the dwindling numbers of veterans on November 11th became not only a duty, but an honour. These men and women had seen unimaginable horrors, they had lived through chaos and destruction and they were REAL people. People I could shake the hands of, people I could see standing with tears for their lost youth and their lost friends. The colour that is in their memories we can never see, we only have the black and white old photos.

There is now, no longer anyone alive who knows the colours of WWI, who remembers the smell of the mud of Flanders, the sound of artillery or the shrieks of dying companions. That war has become history.

Soon the same will happen for those who lived through WWII. And still, there are wars where young men and women fight because they are told to. There are still men and women now much younger than me who will have such memories. 

To stand beside them today is to stand beside all of those who are now history, to stand and remember is to make sure that History is not forgotten.

Keep your sightglass full, your firebox trimmed and your water iced.

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