Freelance writer from Cornwall
‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.’
The best-known part of Lawrence Binyon’s ‘Ode to Remembrance,’ forming part of his classic poem ‘For the Fallen.’
Coming from a military family and, considering Remembrance Day is almost upon us, I was flicking through some classic war poetry when I found ‘Ode to Remembrance.’ Lawrence Binyon wrote this poem while visiting Cornwall, somewhere on the north coast between Pentire Point and The Rumps. It was originally published in ‘The Times’ during September 1914, when the casualties after the First Battle of the Marne were fresh in the minds of the wartime public.
You’ll find this quote on many war memorials and recited at many Remembrance Day services. It’s also likely that it will become common coin again over the next year or so as the centenary of the First World War is marked in various ways. We remember those who were killed in action, those who are still listed as missing (some even decades after their passing), those who suffered long-term physical injuries (disfigurement, amputation, burns, blindness etc) and we remember those distinguished themselves by their courage and selflessness in action (courage and selflessness that, for many of them, sadly proved fatal).
What many people, (not all by any means, but many) aren’t as good at is remembering those who survived physically, but were mentally damaged or even destroyed as a result of their time in uniform. Those described by Erich Maria Remarque (writer of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’) as ‘A generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.’ Of course that doesn’t just apply to men nowadays, women serve as bravely and skilfully as their male counterparts, but the sentiment remains the same.
Former service personnel in Britain have a higher than average chance of developing mental illness after their service. What doctors once labelled neurasthenia, ‘nerve shock’, ‘shell shock’ or ‘battle fatigue’ is nowadays known as PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Former service personnel can have nightmares, flashbacks, delusions, panic and anxiety attacks, night terrors and psychosis. They can find themselves unable to fit back into civilian life once they’ve left the service and, sadly, almost one third of Britain’s homeless are former members of the military.
By no means all of them ended up homeless due to psychological issues created by their military service, but a great many of them did, at least in part, end up on park benches, sleeping in doorways or cardboard boxes or perhaps are lucky enough to get the odd night in a homeless shelter due to mental problems acquired while serving the rest of us. And, just like many people prefer to pretend not to notice a homeless person shambling past them on a street, many would probably either not know or simply not care that it was serving the rest of us that helped put them there.
So, while it’s perfectly right to remember those who are no longer with us, to remember those who came home and managed to pick up where they left off or build new lives for themselves after having served in a war, let’s spare a thought for those who survived physically while being destroyed mentally, consider that they need our support, that they’ve earned it through their service and that they should have it as of right and not as some act of passing charity.
By all means remember and honour those who died as victims of war.
Just don’t forget the victims who still live, because there’s more that can be done for those who are still alive.
And considerably more than is currently being done for them. Because it seems as though, regarding veterans with lasting mental damage, many people don’t remember them.
They’d rather forget them instead.