Remembrance Sunday: Ukraine War shows why we must remember past conflicts and learn from them – Alex Cole-Hamilton
My mother had two great uncles, one who died and one who lived.
The first, a 23-year-old private in the First 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 Sorrell on the Ypres Salient. He was never found. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Belgium. His name was Alexander Bennet; I am named for him.
The second, also a Canadian, was an airman. His name was Arthur Roy Brown and he was credited with shooting down and killing the famous Manfred von Richthofen, the ‘Red Baron,’ in a dog fight over France. It was an accolade he never accepted, explaining for the remainder of his life that while he had hit the Red Baron, he could not be sure that it was his was shot that killed the notorious flying ace. Sure enough, historians and forensic pathologists would later go on to prove that the Red Baron had in fact been taken down by an Australian ground machine-gun crew, but Arthur’s place in history remains intact.
This Remembrance Sunday, families the world over will remember stories of both tragedy and heroism in equal measure. While the living memory of the two world wars has all but passed beyond us, this year there is a new poignancy to our commemoration. The armistice that ended the First World War may have been signed 104 years ago but once again each morning we wake to images of trench warfare and mechanised slaughter in continental Europe. Footage of dugouts, dirt, shellfire and carnage are live-streamed across our social media platforms.
As the old adage has it: “Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.” And in addition to the horrors of the battlefields of the Kherson and Donetsk oblasts, which emulate Flanders and the Somme, we see a repetition of civilian suffering in Ukraine as well. The bombed-out carcasses of Mariupol and Kharkiv could just as easily be Coventry or Dresden in the 1940s for all that is left of them.
But it is not the fighting men and women of Ukraine who have failed to learn those lessons of history, it is their Russian aggressors. As they desperately try to roll back the Russian advance along the Eastern Front, Ukrainians are fighting for so much more than their national sovereignty. They represent the frontline in a clash of ideals, a struggle for the soul of humanity. It is because they decided to take a stand and resist the blitzkrieg of Putin’s expansionism that they have ultimately spared others from having to. Certainly, if they hadn’t, Putin’s gangsters would not have stopped at Ukraine.
This war, like those we remember on Armistice Day, could well come to define our century. It underpins why this season of remembrance is so important. For as long as men crave power and dominance over their neighbours, there will be conflict.
So this weekend, I’ll think of my uncles, of their heroism and their sacrifice, but I’ll also think of those fighting for their lives and their freedom in the fields and towns of Ukraine. For our tomorrows, they are giving their todays.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western