If you spend any time on the internet (which you obviously do if you’re reading this) then there’s a good chance that you’ve seen any number of slightly flippant, jokey posts about how we bemoan the minor inconveniences of our lives, ironically comparing them to the far greater ones of those far less fortunate than ourselves, often tagged as #firstworldproblems.
It isn’t a fad that I’m interested in following, as it strikes me as being a way of pretending to care about things, just so we can let other people know how terrible it is that we didn’t get our morning cappuccino exactly the way we liked it, or that we were just too late to snap up those Kate Bush tickets we so desperately wanted, all the while secretly hoping that someone will fail to see the irony and commiserate with how our comfortable, carefully insulated lives have taken a turn for the mildly irritating.
We all have problems.
Mine are currently……..well, you don’t want to know and I can’t say I blame you, I’m sure you have plenty of your own.
And I’m equally sure that to you they seem like insurmountable obstacles in the path of your existence, but at the same time you realise that, sooner or later they will work themselves out and you’ll be able to return to the relative ease of your comfy first world lives just like I will, our memory’s ability to relegate life’s little hiccups to the recycle bin of enforced amnesia once more coming to our collective rescue.
There are others who are not so lucky however, those who we do remember, and we remember because we consider it our duty to do so.
This post is about just a few of them.
You would need to be living in a box to have missed the fact that 2014 is the anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, or The Great War as it was called, before the curse of hindsight required us to number mankind’s episodes of inhuman folly, like some sort of horrific sequel in the continuing franchise of stupidity and senseless waste.
Like all good historical epics there are many small stories of huge heroism, many of them largely overlooked by history itself until a poignant reminder brings them to our attention, and this is one of those stories.
As a teenager I was lucky enough to visit the Thievpal war graves cemetery at Vallois Bayonne in France, site of vicious fighting in the battles for the Somme and resting place of many hundreds of soldiers, a deeply affecting place that has stayed with me ever since.
One of the extraordinary tales that has recently been brought to light is that of Joel Halliwell, a lance-corporal in the Lancaster Fusiliers who was awarded Britain’s greatest military honour for outstanding gallantry.
During a blistering German attack in 1918 Halliwell took it upon himself to launch a one man rescue mission, his challenge being to recover wounded comrades who had been stranded in no-man’s-land.
Having captured a stray fallen German soldier’s horse he rode the terrified animal out onto the battlefield, criss-crossed with heavy machine gun fire, and bodily lifted a badly injured member of his battalion across it’s back, returning to the British lines, saving the man’s life in a show of incredible bravery that could very well have cost him his own.
But this wasn’t enough for Joel.
Over the course of the next few hours he made another nine sorties into the terrifying hell of mud, blood, mortar rounds, corpses and barbed wire, bringing back eight more “other ranks” and one officer, all of whom survived to return home when hostilities ceased.
Not only that, having secured the safety of his fellow soldiers – forced to abandon his efforts only when the horse collapsed from exhaustion – he walked over two miles in order to bring the wounded men water, earning himself the Victoria Cross at the age of 37.
Returning to England after the war, Joel Halliwell lived until 1956, although sadly his brother Tom, also fighting on the Somme, died of wounds he received serving his country in 1916.
(A recent episode of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow programme not only presented Joel’s daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter with a replica of the VC medal that he earned in battle, they also located Tom’s grave, finally allowing the family to lay a tribute to their lost hero, in the corner of a foreign field in which he lay down his life)
But not all of the events that have an anniversary this year are quite so honourable.
Twenty years ago, in April 1994, just 100 days of terror and unbelievably brutal violence meant that the chaotic and deeply divided country of Rwanda soon became one of the most horrifically tortured areas on the planet.
Even though the vast majority of Rwandans in the 1990’s (some 85%) were from the Hutu tribe, the dominant monarchy in the country was made up of members from the ruling Tutsis.
As far back as the late fifties the Hutus overthrew their Tutsi overlords, chasing large numbers of them over the border into Uganda. However, the Tutsis regrouped and returned to take back their kingdom by force in 1990, leading to fierce fighting which continued until an uneasy peace was agreed three years later.
The peace treaty didn’t last long though, because only a few months afterwards a plane carrying the Hutu president and his Burundi counterpart (also a Hutu) was shot down.
Even today, some believe that the deaths of the two presidents was a plot by the Hutu themselves, designed to give them an excuse to persecute the Tutsis, who they publicly blamed for the supposed treachery.
Whatever the case, the Hutu promptly began a campaign of organised violence and appalling atrocities against the returning Tutsis, eventually resulting in the deaths of a staggering 800,000 people, many of them women and children.
Someone who witnessed the tragic events that lead to those 100 days of terrifying infamy was Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Channel 4 News and veteran of many war zone reports.
This week she told of how she was in Rwanda for the very first days of what would become one of the worst genocidal atrocities in modern times.
I first thought that I would quote from the piece she did on the programme yesterday, but I don’t think I could do her justice. So please watch this short clip of her, relating the heartbreaking story of her experiences in the war-torn hell that she lived through. For I truly believe that only by hearing first-hand how these events shaped the history of a nation on the brink of its own destruction can we hope to understand the inhumanity of which we are capable, and by doing so, making sure we can somehow prevent it happening again.
I’m aware that this isn’t an easy thing to hear, and neither should it be, because if it was then it would only show that we are already lost, along with our empathy for those who perished at the hands of their countrymen, their neighbours and in some cases, their own families.
The final thing I wish to address in this post, and one that I consider to be a stain on our own national conscience, is the decision by our government to allow the faceless murderers of hundreds of innocent civilians to go free after the years of grief and pain they caused so many families.
I am of course speaking of the odious Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, which will let terrorists of both sides in the long running, bloody and senseless slaughter of “The Troubles” walk away from their crimes without so much as a slap on the wrist.
It seems unbelievably cowardly and callous to simply wipe the slate clean on decades of violence and pain, purely for the sake of political expedience.
I offer no solution to this, neither do I profess any great understanding of how better to handle the situation, but I cannot see that adding to the bitterness and pain of an already blighted generation can do anything other than reignite the hatred and division that brought about so much loss to begin with.
The only thing that any of us can offer is the persistence of memory, the continued pledge that we will remember, in the hope that somehow we can avoid this sort of repetition of history in our future.