Amid the poppies, the parades, the TV programmes on military themes, the commemorative art works springing up in towns and villages across the country, Theresa May said last week that she would be laying a wreath at the graves of British soldiers in France on the centenary of the Armistice to commemorate ‘every member of the Armed Forces who gave their lives to protect what we hold so dear’.
Private George Taylor of the Worcester Regiment, my great-uncle, was killed in Flanders a century ago. Family lore has it that his sister, my maternal grandmother, was raking out the fire at home in Birmingham when a shiver went down her back; she said unthinkingly, ‘Don’t be silly, George,’ and that, it turned out, was the moment he had died. Uncle George thus joined the glorious, mute and quiescent dead. Meanwhile, my father’s father had enlisted at 16 when the Great War broke out. He took a bullet to the head while rescuing a wounded comrade in no man’s land – a heroic act for which he was, in the ludicrous expression, ‘decorated’. He survived. His ‘good war’ notwithstanding, my grandfather’s after-war life was a litany of petty criminality, dodging, black-marketeering (in the Second World War), and domestic violence – he once dangled my father, as a baby, out of an upstairs window when my grandmother couldn’t stop him crying. Such may be the lives of those who fail to die too young – or, to put it the other way, live too long.
One of the striking traditions of Remembrance Sunday is the wreath that the Foreign Office lays at the Cenotaph. All the other wreaths are made at the British Legion's Poppy Factory, but the FCO's is supplied from Kew. It represents the flora of Britain's overseas territories, so this year, for example, it contains Bermuda snowberry, slipper spurge (Anguilla), myrtle (Gibraltar), moss (British Antarctic), boxwood (St Helena), parrot's plantain (Virgin Islands) and tussock grass (the Falklands). This year the focus is on veterans of Korea, who headed the march past on the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the war.