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‘Lest We Forget’… or Have We Already Forgotten? Lessons from WW1

Peter Jackson is one of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers, bringing to life the world of J. R. R. Tolkien with his ‘Lord of The Rings’ epics.

As incredible the achievement in filmmaking that still drives visitors to the Jackson created Middle Kingdom set in New Zealand, it is one of his latest offerings, ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ that I have found most mesmerising and masterful.

Inspired by the brave men who sacrificed so much, Jackson has restored old and damaged footage of World War I, telling the story of the war through the words of the men who were there.

The film, as no other has done, portrays the optimism of men heading into what they see as a great adventure, only for that adventure to descend into an earthly hell beyond imagination.

It is a film that all should see to give us a greater understanding of the importance of Remembrance and ANZAC Day, that those we pause to remember are people like you and me asked to do what nobody should ever be asked to do in defence of their nation.

Instead of time with family and friends, nights out and Sunday BBQ’s they survived for years amidst rat infested mud holes, bogged down in trenches amongst the bloody stagnation on the human slaughter fields.

For the lucky ones who survived a journey back home also meant trying to settle back into a life amidst a public who could never fully understand the horror that had been endured.

The narration from those soldiers in Peter Jackson’s work is captivating as they describe being issued with a single uniform, fed appallingly, bearing witness to mates being blown to smithereens, losing limbs and for many their minds in the process.

Yet the manner with which they speak is so matter of fact, as they tell us that “it was how it was” and that they simply “had to get on with it.”

Some lied about their age and experience in order to fight at the head of what they saw as a great and important cause.

Today such deceptions are more about the cause of getting ahead, rather than sacrifice, where losing one’s phone is the equivalent feeling to losing a limb, whilst losing our minds tends to happen when situations do not turn out as planned.

Ours is an age in which ‘influencers’ go into meltdown, complete with tears and tantrums when Instagram takes away the visibility of their likes.

All making one ponder how these folks may have handled losing actual friends and followers en masse to howitzers, bombardments from heavy artillery and chemical weapon attacks.

Fortunately for the spoilt nature modern generations, due to the sacrifices of those who came before, they are free to explore such petty grievances.

In such a distracted society it has never been more important to pause and remember all who have fallen so we can live in freedom.

Like ANZAC Day, Remembrance Day should hold great significance as we all contemplate the emotions of that moment on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, when the guns fell silent on the Western Front, ending one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. Months later, in June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles cemented that armistice.

The First World War now seems so long ago with the last surviving veteran of the trenches, the ‘Last Fighting Tommy’ Harry Patch, now passed at the curious age of 111 years, 1 month, 1 week and 1 day old.

Harry refused to speak of his experiences until 1998, when it became clear he was amongst a rapidly dwindling number of survivors of the Great War.

When he did finally speak Harry gave an insight into the thoughts and emotions of those on the frontlines as the war ended.

“When the war ended, I don’t know if I was more relieved that we’d won or that I didn’t have to go back. Thousands and thousands of young lives lost. It makes me angry. All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that.”

A centenary on I wonder what Harry and the narrators of Peter Jacksons sensitively constructed tribute might make of how we have ended up as a society today.

Having fought and sacrificed so much for that greater cause of freedom would their matter of fact manner say, if your idea of freedom is to stick your head in your smart phone, latest video games or marvel movies, well “good luck to you.”

Or would they wonder in this ‘me first’ world, where the very sense of community for which they fought has disappeared, was worth the level of sacrifice asked.

A world which has never been wealthier and provides a lifestyle to current generations that requires no sacrifice, yet despite not being asked to stand in a trench surrounded by the dead, our youth have never been more anxious, broken or unhappy.

I can only imagine what men like Harry Patch might make of it all and suspect it would not so much “Lest We Forget” but rather “have we have already forgotten.”

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