Why, belatedly, I now always try to mark Remembrance Day

Ben Lowry at the grave of his great uncle Second Lieutenant John Lowry who died in the Great War in 1917 and is buried in Thessaloniki in Greece
Ben Lowry at the grave of his great uncle Second Lieutenant John Lowry who died in the Great War in 1917 and is buried in Thessaloniki in Greece

A curious thing is happening on Remembrance Sunday and on Armistice Day.

The two dates are, if anything, growing in significance as the world wars recede further into the past.

Belfast man Second Lieutenant John Lowry of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, who died on May 4 1917 in Greece, and is buried in Thessaloniki

Belfast man Second Lieutenant John Lowry of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, who died on May 4 1917 in Greece, and is buried in Thessaloniki

Remembrance is no doubt observed less widely than it was in the 1930s or 50s, but it is perhaps up on 20 years ago.

Belfast City Hall on Wednesday had one of the biggest crowds I have seen packed into the Remembrance Garden.

My (obvious) theory for this is that it is dawning on us how prosperous and safe our lives mostly are, and thus how extraordinary it is that things were so utterly different only decades ago, when millions of young men faced horrors such as the Somme or Stalingrad or the grinding terror of life in a wartime submarine.

Or how different things now are for young servicemen and women who have lost limbs in conflicts such as Afghanistan while millions of their peers lead lives of smartphones or sport or travel or, maybe, wild parties.

Perhaps to make up for our indulgences, it is not unusual for modern society to indulge in sudden displays of sentimentality. Yet the two remembrance dates – the longer services on the Sunday and the two-minute silence on Armistice Day – are not like that. They are dignified and simple and since 1919 have been marked by two-minute silences. Not three or one. Not showy silence for a single horrific event or for a single death.

Silences such as the nationwide silence for the unspeakable Tunisia massacre might of course be appropriate at times or in places but are sometimes decreed for perhaps dubious reasons. They throw up paradoxes too – why no silence for the Rwanda genocide, etc?

But on Armistice Day the silence is entirely appropriate.

The scale of the deaths in the two world wars alone is mind boggling. More people died in a single night in Belfast in the 1941 Blitz than died in the Troubles in the 1980s. In the Great War, British military deaths were well on the way to a million. And the UK got off lightly in the world wars compared to much of Europe.

OK, the victims didn’t all consciously die “for us”. They were often just in the wrong place and time (although the remembrance services are intended – rightly – to recognise those who served and thus put themselves in harm’s way).

But the fact is that all of these people died as a result of the world violently reshaping itself, ultimately (perhaps accidentally) for the better and in a way that worked in our favour.

It isn’t much of an ask to pause briefly once a year to think of their extreme misfortune.

My journey towards wanting to mark Remembrance Day was gradual. I have known for as long as I can remember that I had a great uncle who died in World War I. But as a teen and beyond, this meant little to me.

He was a black and white photograph from the ancient past, a man who inhabited a different universe. Well into my 20s, I slept through most Remembrance Sunday mornings.

Slowly, over many years, my mounting awareness of John Lowry’s 1917 death in the Great War has approached the level of incredulity. He was not the second cousin of a great grandparent. He was my Dad’s uncle and his life ended aged 23, in Greece. He had about half as much life as I have had (and I hope to go on a long way further).

Like almost half of British casualties down there, it was disease that killed him. Perhaps that was worse than a bullet.

My own brief bout of malaria in Mali in 2006 was wiped out fast by the powerful drugs that are now available, but still I was fussing and neurotic.

Did John think all along he would recover? Or did he come to realise that his hopes and dreams (with which all men of that age are bursting) were at an end.

It was eerie to visit his grave in a British cemetery in Thessaloniki in August. There was no-one visiting the graves, set amid perfectly cut lawns. I had a strange sense of the isolation from our native Belfast.

We now live in an age when events are called off if there is a heavy wind or snowfall, so I was pleased to see scores of people at Holywood’s cenotaph on Sunday, despite awful conditions. The brief closure of the nearby road was a nice touch (yes, I have written critically about the tendency to close routes for charity fun runs but sorry, it is not the same thing).

It is fitting to see Sinn Fein get involved in remembrance. I bet there is barely a family in west Belfast without a British services link, if they widen out to great great grandparents (we all have 16) and so on.

I asked Belfast’s Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Arder Carson as much when I videoed him on Armistice Day for our website and sure enough his cousin was a WW2 vet.

How beautiful that we are all coming to recognise, and set aside a few minutes each year for, such men.

• Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor