Poignancy without pomp and poppies: In Ypres every night is an act of remembrance. Frank Barrett finds it an eloquent tribute to the war dead

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The Independent Online
MY GRANDFATHER always got out of breath walking upstairs. 'He was gassed,' my grandmother once told me discreetly, making it appear to me as if he were the victim of an unfortunate domestic accident. Gradually I came to understand that it was during the First World War that he had been gassed - and that it had been no accident.

He never talked about how he had lied about his age and joined up at 16. He said nothing about the Battle of the Somme and the gas attack that left him short of breath. As far as he was concerned he simply 'did his bit' by joining up at the start of the war in 1914.

In 1939 he joined the Royal Navy and did his bit again. Working as a gunner left him profoundly deaf. He was torpedoed in the Arctic - was one of a handful who survived: the first my grandmother knew of this was when he turned up one day at home unannounced in a borrowed coat. But he never talked about that either. He never wanted to turn out on Remembrance Day parades in his polished medals (he never polished his medals).

He certainly regretted the deaths of those comrades who failed to return with him from the wars. But his attitude was that war was not glorious: there were those who returned and those who didn't. For those that didn't, their deaths were no glorious sacrifice, simply bad luck. He was an eminently practical man who viewed the 11 November ceremonies with wry detachment.

My grandfather died long ago - his gassed lungs finally did for him - but I think he would be amazed at the elaborate pageantry that still marks Remembrance Day.

Wilfred Owen, the poet, who died in action 75 years ago tomorrow, dismissed the cant that surrounds the Glorification of War (and its kindred spirit the Glorification of Remembrance) in Dulce et decorum est: 'My friend, you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.'

But next weekend, come the Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall and the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, one or two of the 'old Lies' will no doubt be rehearsed again. For a brief hour, war will be presented as noble and justifiable. Soldiers will parade and march, bands will play - and the reality of young people being gassed ('. . . the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer'), or blown apart, will be conveniently forgotten.

Binyon's lines 'At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them . . .' will be recited. But as each year passes these lines carry less conviction: for those born in the past 20 years, the two world wars are drifting away into some remote historical period, along with the battles of the Crimea and the War of the Spanish Succession.

But this needn't be so. Last week I was in Ypres, where every night for almost 70 years the town has performed a simple ceremony of remembrance. At 8pm beneath the Menin Gate, built as an arch of memorial to the 54,896 Allied soldiers who died in the area between 1914 and 1918 with no known grave, members of the local fire brigade perform the Last Post. There is no elaborate pomp, simply haunting bugle notes that echo poignantly in the night.

For the three evenings that I was there, each performance was watched by large, impressively well-behaved groups of British schoolchildren. They came to Ypres not in an act of remembrance but as part of their education: the study of the First World War is a key element of the National Curriculum. School parties are everywhere in the area: in the museums, in front of the monuments and in the cemeteries (there are 155 in the Ypres area alone), completing worksheets and taking notes.

Having studied the awful events of the war during the day, watching the evening performance of the Last Post in Ypres moves them in a way that the Cenotaph or Albert Hall ceremonies never do. No army bands, no marching soldiers, no flag waving, no 'old Lies'.

We should remember those who died in war. But we do them no honour, and ourselves no credit, by over-glorifying the remembrance. Those schools that are imaginative enough to take their children to Ypres, to the Somme or to the beaches of Normandy are providing the most fitting memorial. Discovering how and why, for example, the First World War started, visiting the battlefields and seeing the ground on which lives were squandered - surely this is a better remembrance than any Poppy Day appeal.

(Photograph omitted)

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