I have always been interested in history. It was my favourite subject at school – well, equal favourite with English literature. I had a wonderful – slightly eccentric – well, very, very eccentric – history teacher, Mr Blackburn. He was supreme. The definition of an inspirational teacher, conveying all his passion and love of history to his classes and despite being strict and tough, endeared himself to me and so many others who held him in great respect and affection. I went on to do history at A-level and have continued to fascinated by it to this day – dominating my reading and viewing habits. I put much of this fascination down to Mr Blackburn.
It was in the company of Mr Blackburn and the rest of my class that I went to the battlefields of the western front in 1993, aged 14. It was around Easter – something I remember as much because of listening to the FA Cup semi-finals on the radio on the interminable coach journey than on recalling the date or the weather! It remains one of the most important trips of my life. It remains one of the most moving things I have experienced.
As this week’s commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle of Passchendaele demonstrates, the cemeteries and monuments to the lost souls in Flanders are extraordinarily beautiful; with rows and rows and rows of immaculately white headstones and perfectly prepared lawns and gardens of rest. It is hard to imagine standing there in 1993 or watching the pictures on TV over the last few days the scenes of squalor and carnage that dominated not just these fields but so much of northern France and Belgium.
Witnessing the daily ceremony that takes place in the Menin Gate in the small town of Ypres will always be my abiding image of that unforgettable trip. Every night at 8pm – to this day – the traffic is stopped and the last post played to remembered those who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Great War. This act of dignified temperance and thanks has has been carried on uninterrupted since 2 July 1928. It is mind blowing. It blew my 14 year old mind back then and blows it today. The continued commitment and dedication to remember is so deeply moving. Once it is experienced, it is impossible to forget.
I made a promise to myself that day that I would never forget the feeling I had – the two tears that rolled down my cheeks. I promised I would carry that memory with me and never forget the futility of war or the immense sense of loss that was all around me. I promised I would not forget the local people, many of whom still wiped a tear from their eyes as the buglers played. I now promise – with all my heart – that I will pass on my memory of that trip and what I learnt to my daughter. I will carry the flame of Passchendaele and Ypres with me and hope to inspire Aoife as much as Mr Blackburn inspired me.
The photo is of a postcard I bought at the Menin Gate which I still have at home today.