With so many words, in all media, dedicated to the repercussions of the UK referendum, I have been reluctant to express an opinion here. But on this morning, the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, with the blackbird, wren and chaffinch singing in the garden and highly-appropriate skylarks soaring in music overhead, I am irresistibly drawn to one thought.
We have heard much from and about the so-called ‘younger generation,’ incensed about the opportunities denied to them and futures which are seen as lost through our impending exit from the European Union. On this day, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on what those phrases actually mean, against what they meant a hundred years ago to the thousands upon thousands of young men for whom life ended altogether on 1 July 1916 and in the brutal months that followed.
The Somme holds a special place in the history and collective memory of Plaxtol. Edward Cazalet, eldest son of the squire at the manor house of Fairlawne, died there on the night of 10 September 1916, at the end of a day of close-quarters fighting outside the village of Ginchy. A Second Lieutenant with the 2nd Battalion, Welsh Guards, he had been newly-stationed with his Company on 26 July, aged 22, and was destined to exceed by a mere three days the oft-quoted life expectancy of a junior officer in France of just six weeks. Guardsman Williams, Edward’s servant, wrote later to Edward’s mother
‘I can assure you that everything that could be done for Mr Cazalet was done, but it was all in vain and he was killed almost instantaneously. I also did what he wanted to be done if anything should happen to him as he was talking to me two or three days before he went into action.’
Edward had been intelligent, sensitive, much-loved, destined for a career in diplomacy. He was one of 195 casualties suffered by the Battalion on that single day.
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At his inauguration on 20 January 1961, US President John F Kennedy famously addressed the people of America with the words ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ His words echoed – some would say plagiarised – those of Senator (later President) Warren G Harding, who told the Republican convention in June 1916: ‘In the great fulfilment, we must have a citizenship less concerned about what the government can do for it and more anxious about what it can do for the nation’ – although admittedly JFK managed to express the sentiment in a considerably pithier soundbite.
I cannot, would not, ever seek to compare the sacrifices of the Great War with the situation confronting us today. But, on this day and in the days that follow, it might be fitting for all of us, including those touted as disappointed and betrayed in the ‘remainist’ media, to reflect upon the opportunities, the futures, the very business of living which are still ours. These are changing and uncertain times but in this, the country we have following 23 June 2016, it is up to each of us to make the very best of the lives we have. Not to do so would be folly.
© New Moons For Old, 2016
Footnote: The quote from Guardsman Williams’s letter is taken from Peter Martin’s piece ‘A Very Brief Life’ in The Guards Magazine. © Crown Copyright.
- Remember © Royal British Legion
- Edward Cazalet (detail) © Plaxtol Local History Group