Remembrance Day: Why we must continue to mark the horror and sacrifice of the First World War – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

Every year in France and Belgium, farmers ploughing their fields unearth shell casings, barbed wire and shrapnel.

By Alex Cole-Hamilton
Tuesday, 9th November 2021, 4:45 pm
Members of a British Highland regiment in a trench during the First World War in 1915. (Picture: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Members of a British Highland regiment in a trench during the First World War in 1915. (Picture: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It is the material of a war fought over 100 years ago and it is called “the Iron Harvest”. While that war has passed out of living memory, that harvest will continue. It is a poignant reminder that whilst those who lived through it are no longer with us, the scars of that conflict run deep into the land and we have a duty to remember.

My first speech in the Scottish Parliament as a newly elected MSP in 2016 fell on a particular anniversary for my family. On that day, 100 years previously, my great uncle, a 23-year-old private among the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles out of Saskatchewan was killed along with 80 per cent of his battalion on the first day of the battle of Mont Sorel on the Ypres Salient in Belgium. His name was Alexander Bennet and I am named for him.

In that battle, the Canadians were gassed and many were buried alive after the detonation of explosive packed tunnels under their position. It was also one of the first battles in which the Germans had used flamethrowers as a frontline weapon.

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I cannot imagine the abject horror that would have characterised Alexander’s final moments. His body was never found and his name appears on the Menin Gate for those fallen soldiers with no known resting place.

What happened to the remaining Saskatchewan troops after Mont Sorel was the same thing that happened to so many battle-scarred and traumatised battalions. Far from being sent home to recuperate, they were patched into other regiments and sent to places like the Somme and then on to Passchendaele to face the horror of the Western Front over and over again.

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Celebrated war poet Wilfred Owen once described the mechanised slaughter of Flanders as being “obscene as cancer”. That’s how I see it too.

British and German troops pictured together on January 9, 1915, during a Christmas and New Year truce in the trenches of the Western Front (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It’s why at the age of 14, I started attending Quaker meeting. Their commitment to non-violence, conflict resolution and peace has always spoken to me. Thirty years later and I am still a Quaker, but that does not mean that I don’t carry a tremendous respect for those members of our armed services and the soldiers, sailors and air force personnel who went before them.

We know from the ambulance waiting times crisis, the Covid testing hubs and the vaccine programme just how important our armed forces are in helping out in times of crisis.

The deployment of British troops in forward conflict positions is mercifully rare these days, but they still put themselves in harm's way, at home and overseas. They deserve our thanks and our respect.

Whether it’s the poppy wreathes that politicians and civic leaders will lay at war memorials or in the services that will take place in churches the country over this coming Sunday, it is our duty and our obligation to give thanks and to remember.

The metal that lies in French and Belgian fields will eventually stop rising to the surface, but if we are to learn from the horror and the sacrifice of war then our acts of remembrance must continue.

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