If you go to Thiepval in France, you will be greeted by row after row of graves. On and on they stretch until it becomes inconceivable that so many could have died.

The same is true of so many areas of northern France and Flanders. You can go to Mametz where a Red Dragon stands overlooking the battlefield where so many Welsh soldiers died. A similar statue is there in Langermark in Flanders, itself not far from Artillery Wood cemetery where the poet Hedd Wyn is buried.

If you travel to the town of Ypres you will see the Menin gate where the names of 53000 men are inscribed. These are men whose bodies were never found.

Between 2014-18 we commemorated the losses of so many young people. I went to all those places that I’ve mentioned. There are two things that strike you beyond the sheer number of headstones.

Firstly, there are so many of those headstones that simply say “a soldier of the Great War. Known unto God’. This means that the grave contains a body that was never identified, one of the many whose families were simply told that they were “Missing in Action”, a euphemism for a body that was never found or identified.

The National Wales: Hedd Wyn (Ellis Evans) was a poet who was killed on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele in World War I, and was posthumously awarded the bard's chair at the 1917 National EisteddfodHedd Wyn (Ellis Evans) was a poet who was killed on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele in World War I, and was posthumously awarded the bard's chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod

Secondly, you can see how flat the land is in Flanders. Those young men climbed out of tranches into a landscape where there was no cover, into a hail of bullets while clambering over barbed wire and the bodies of their fallen comrades. It is so difficult for us now to comprehend what it takes for an individual to be prepared to do that.

Many of those in the graves were not much older than my son, and I contemplated what it must have been like for those left behind who were always in fear of that communication that might come to tell them that a loved one had been killed.


Imagine sitting in your house when a letter comes to tell you that you son or husband is dead. There have been many who have lost loved ones in conflicts since but I have come from a generation that was not obliged to take up arms. I’m at least grateful that such a horror has been spared to many.

The Remembrance events remind us though that there have been families who have had to suffer loss in conflicts since and we must remember their suffering too.

The most difficult aspect of the First World War is that most people could not tell you what it was all about. The Second War was easier to define; it was a war against an evil philosophy that murdered people in their millions. The First War was simply a clash of nationalisms of different countries where old men whipped up the young to die in a cause which most people have forgotten about. Millions dead but the reason for the conflict long faded from collective memory.

Those same men who drove war then messed up the peace. At Versailles a peace settlement was concluded that declared that Germany had to pay enormous sums of reparations and so creating the conditions that led to a huge sense of grievance on the part of the Germans. This in turn was fundamental to the cause of the Second World War. It was also a peace of hypocrisy. It declared that all people had the right to self-determination, but it really meant for people who were white. Just as Britain tried to declare itself a supporter of the rights of small nations, so it fought a war to prevent the people of Ireland trying to exercise those rights.

What was it all for? That’s a question for historians to debate. We do now that that the First World War was called the “war to end all wars”. Sadly, humanity has never learned that lesson. Still we fight and still we sacrifice people to needless conflicts over territory or seas or over whose version of religion is right. In the middle are caught the young, always victims of the vanities of older leaders.


It's tempting to be depressed about the state of the world today. It is far more unstable than it was thirty years ago. It’s easy to be angry at those who ignore the graves that range from the beaches of Normandy to the green fields of France and posture with their military forces to try to look tough.

But there can be optimism. At COP26 we saw thousands mobilised to save the planet. All across the world people waited to see if their political leaders were up to the task. It’s questionable whether they did enough. That determination to save the planet must be translated into a determination to save lives. There’s little point in saving a planet if too many of its human inhabitants are determined to destroy each other.

I’m not a pacifist. I don’t believe that dropping your weapons in front of armed, hostile people is the answer. In a dangerous world we need ways to defend ourselves. But we also need world leaders who will do all that they can to avoid conflicts and look to diplomacy instead. This might be a pipe-dream but I can guarantee that all those young men lying in their graves as a result of war would expect better from us.

Otherwise we turn our backs on the sacrifices they made.

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