News & Blog

We will remember them

Posted on Wed, 1 November 2023 by Karen Needs - Medal News

We will remember PERSONAL remembrance is easy—we will never forget John, his photographs are everywhere, his presence and influence touched many lives and those who knew him will carry his memory for years to come. For the vast majority of us, collective remembrance is a different thing. When we wear our poppies, march past war memorials, stand silent at 11.00am on November 11, we are not necessarily remembering particular soldiers, sailors or airmen, not, perhaps, conjuring images of those long dead to hold in our mind’s eye. Rather, we are remembering what they stood for, what their collective sacrifice meant, and we are paying a debt to their memory by acknowledging that they (to paraphrase John Maxwell Edmonds) “gave their tomorrow for our today”. Whilst this is, of course, admirable, it does mean that those individuals may indeed have been forgotten, for we remember “them” as a collective, but we don’t necessarily remember each of them in their own right. For medal collectors, however, remembrance might well be different. There are no World War I veterans left now and few around today who knew anyone who fought in that conflict; sadly there are fewer and fewer World War II veterans around either. As the years have gone by, they have slipped silently from son to father to grandfather to great-grandfather without anyone realising just how quickly time has passed. Soon, there will be no one alive at all who fought in that war, no one to personally remember their comrades who fell, and as assuredly as they have passed, so too will their children and grandchildren. Time is inexorable. But whilst the men might not be around forever, their medals will be (bar another silver boom wiping out the British War Medals that survived the late 70s that is) and that is where we must fill the gaps. I have, I know, said this before but this Remembrance Day take some time to look at your collection (particularly the medals of those who fought in the two World Wars if you have them) and take some time to remember the individuals who served. Think about their names, who they were, where they lived, when they died. Look at their photographs if you’re lucky enough to have them and acknowledge their service as people rather than as part of an amorphous overall “them”. Wearing a paper poppy and standing quietly respectful for a couple of minutes is all well and good for collective remembrance, and it is hugely important that we do indeed remember “them” as a whole, but it would be a tragedy if the names who made up that whole were lost to time. As medal collectors, we know their names and we know their stories better, perhaps, than anyone bar close family and therefore it behoves us to keep their names alive. It is our responsibility, if not duty, to ensure that as time passes and the individuals fade away that they are not swallowed up into history, faceless and nameless. We may not have known these men personally, but we are now custodians of some of the only things left that connect names on census records to service in the World Wars. In some cases, the medals which we own (for now) will have come on to the open market because nobody cared enough about the recipient to keep them, there was no family to remember him, maybe just a neighbour clearing his house with one eye on how much money things would fetch rather than their history. We, as collectors, owe it to those men whose medals we have to keep their history alive because the chances are that if we don’t, then no one else will, and another old soldier will be lost, known forever only as part of “them”. On a related note, I urge everyone to watch the Remembrance Sunday Service and march past at the Cenotaph this year on Remembrance Sunday, November 12. Although we may not have realised it, there really are very few World War II veterans left now, their numbers are fast dwindling and, amongst those still with us, still fewer are able to take part in the parade. I know that Normandy Veteran Alec Penstone is amongst them this year (we featured him in MEDAL NEWS August and are reviewing his book in a forthcoming issue); although in a wheelchair now, he will be at the Cenotaph with his grandson. How many others will be able to join him remains to be seen. One day there won’t be any and an era would have passed without us really noticing.