Sandra Dick: Lives will end but memories must endure

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Eighty-nine, she was. A good age really, we all agreed. One carer tucked her up at night, she closed her tired eyes and by the time another arrived next day, it was over.

At just short of her ninth decade, my great aunt was our family’s last link with an era that seems played out in grainy black and white. An age that today seems so long ago and yet, when you put it into context of our own elderly loved ones, really isn’t that distant at all.

She was born in 1924, only six years after the end of the First World War, a time when the impact of that horrendous conflict would still be festering in villages and towns and the grief of mothers, fathers, wives, children and siblings, was a sad way of life.

Saturday marked the 99th anniversary of the first Battle of Ypres, and I find it quite mind-blowing that this savage and brutal battle, fought in dire trench conditions by men wading through mud and rats while dodging shells, happened only ten years before my great aunt was born.

It ended in victory for the Allies but – an omen of what would come – left horrific losses on both sides. In all, seven million British soldiers fought in the war, around 660,000 died, approximately 1.6 million were wounded, many dreadfully.

Next year sees the centenary of the start of the First World War, to be marked by hundreds of events that will span the following four years, echoing the timeframe of the conflict.

Among what I suspect will be the most poignant will be a series of BBC programmes announced last week, featuring unseen, moving interviews from the sixties with soldiers from both sides. Among them one German, who simply asks: “What was it, that we soldiers stabbed each other, strangled each other, went for each other, like mad dogs?”

Our world seems light years away from July 1914, so far that it can feel like it didn’t happen. Now, as our family links with that age slip away, remembering events that shaped our nation – indeed, moulded each one of us – seems as relevant and timely as ever.