In the winter of 2005, my brother Nigel and a friend paid a visit to the remains of Stalag Luft III in Sagan, now Zagan, and now in Poland. He tramped across a field deep in snow made more ominous by the silence of the encircling forest. “Toward the back of the clearing,” he wrote, “was the memorial to those of the Great Escape, the fifty murdered by the Gestapo. It was a plain altar, with four open books with their names upon them. The setting was quiet, sobering and respectful. Kind people had built it, and kind people cared for it. The place was full of reverence. We walked across the track to the Russian cemetery. The first shock was the size of it, and then the second was the memorial to those killed in the German prison camp of World War I! Many rested here. Austere, this memorial stood beside another one for the Second World War, recalling yet more unspeakable horrors.”
As Hamlet said in a different context, “The rest is silence.” These last words of Hamlet’s have over time acquired a meaning beyond the play, with its deliberate use of the double sense of ‘rest’ as remainder and as repose: ‘all that is left’ and ‘peace and release from duty.’ The silence is that of the awed respect of the beholder, whether at a battlefield cemetery or at a cenotaph on Remembrance Day. Wilfred Owen, the soldier-poet who died at the age of 25 of wounds one week before the end of the First World War, on November 4, 1918, famously wrote “My subject is War and the Pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.” He understood wartime’s paradox: the threat of imminent death makes life that much more precious, and close comradeship that transcends nationality can be found in conflict, despite the extreme brutality that comes with it, humanity in the face of inhumanity, a selflessness that in wartime must, sadly, take the form of that self-sacrificial suffering that causes us all to bow our heads in humility during our own silent observances, on November 11th every year since 1918.
Photograph of my dad standing beside the damaged Typhoon aircraft he flew.