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Armistice Day

In July 2008, on the way back from Italy, I visited the Becourt Military Cemetery, Becordel-Becourt,  near Albert in northern France. Years earlier, my mother had made a promise to her own mother that she would make the trip and find the grave of one of my cousins, Private W S MacKay of the Seaforth Highlanders, who died there on 14th September 1915 aged 19.

We were the first members of the family to make the trip and it had a profound impact on me. Not simply the visit to that cemetery but the drive through the numerous cemeteries that line the roads and cover the fields in that area. I had to keep reminding myself that each cross or headstone represented a single life extinguished and it was incredibly hard to process that thought without becoming angry and frustrated and wanting to bring every current politician, irrespective of nationality, and force them to make the same journey that I was making, so that they would hopefully understand the futility of such a large-scale loss of life and use all their powers to ensure that current conflicts ended and there were none in future.

As today is Armistice Day and we remember those who gave their lives in past conflicts and continue to do so in present ones, here is a poem inspired by MCMXIV by Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985) about the young men who signed up and left their families to go and fight for their country in the First World War.

This is dedicated to the memory of Private William Sutherland MacKay of the Seaforth Highlanders. Gone but not forgotten.

Keen To Be Off

We meet
at the King’s Arms –
one last pint.
Standing at the bar,
too excited
to sit down.
Ted is last to arrive,
Sweating,
picking earth
from beneath
his fingernails.
He mutters
about leaving
his garden straight –
“For the missus!”

We believe
it’s better
to go together,
easier
for our wives,
Knowing we are there
to look after one another.

Not that Betty
was happy this morning,
crying
through breakfast.
Sitting near me,
watching me eat,
her own plate
untouched.
Red eyes, quiet,
twisting the wedding ring
around her finger.

We are keen
to be off now
We tease and cajole –
Ted finishes
nursing his pint.

There is a holiday feel
to the sunshine,
Shop blinds down,
children’s balls bouncing
off tin advertisements
We walk quickly,
in step,
almost marching.

Around the corner
we see the queue
stretching
from the Town Hall,
shifting slowly.
We join the tail,
shuffling forwards
talking to others
just like us –
all keen
to be away.

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