Mathew Mackie

Remembrance Day: marching a mile in their boots

TBS Editor Mathew Mackie struggled to find a way to properly honour the meaning of Remembrance Day, until he put himself in their boots.


I find it hard to understand War, because I have no personal connection to it. Not one Mackie has fought or fallen on foreign shores. In fact, the closest I’ve been to the barbed arms of international destruction, is through anecdote.

Despite that fact, I look forward to days like ANZAC and Remembrance, because it’s an opportunity to remember the mistakes of the past, and those it took with it. At 11 o’clock today, I’ll be standing silently, reflecting sombrely, but I’ll be doing so objectively. And, like the years before, I’ll shuffle my feet at the point when my mind wanders, and the waves of guilt wash over me, midway through the sombrest of minutes.

The Question is always the same.

Who in particular am I honouring?

The Sacrifice, yes, but Sacrifice in my mind doesn’t have a face.

The Great War, in particular, I find it hard to contemporise, hard to link a feeling to. There are many reasons why, but I feel the main reason is because the horror was so vast. As I’m a devoted fan-boy to History, my mind is coloured by history’s paintbrush. The casualty numbers simplify the meaning, and the ‘outcome’ dehumanises the conflict. The figures, so towering, they become easier to dismiss. On paper, 40,000 dead is the same as 30,000 dead.

Or, as Stalin put it (perhaps ironically) “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic”.

Which is an awful thing to say.

Recently, in an effort to change this, I’ve delved deeper into War on a subjective level. Fleeing to the pages of Graves, Remarque, Wilfred Owen, and in an indirect way, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, in an effort to understand what those who fought went through; and those who were left, lived through. Despite these great orators, flayed by the filthy bloodless hands of War, it was still no use. There was a fictional step in my mind that elevated me above the detritus, hiding behind the spine of the book, claiming ‘Oh, it’s Fiction’

A question struck me this morning, however, one I couldn’t shake.

How would I handle it?

If my hands grasped the cold inert force of a rifle instead of this keyboard, would I be able to turn it on another face?

Would I knowingly be able to take life?

How would I deal with the visceral loss of those I loved the most?

How would I withstand the shuddering randomness and the flashing steel hell of massed artillery? How would I endure the passing minutes of uncertainty, camped in a flimsy dank hole?

How would I breathe the caustic dirty heat of summer, where the air is gaseous, and the landscape turned to mush?

Would my insides collapse at the sound of my superiors’ whistle, commanding me to toe the top step, enabling what would surely be the last of me?

If I were to be killed, would I be lucky, and meet it quickly? Or would I be stranded in the middle of two countries, helpless with no respite, screaming for those who aren’t there?

God. The thought of it rails me. Would I see the face of the man who killed me? Would he remember mine? Would it be that personal? Or would it be a slight misstep, turned to a desperate fumbling tangle driven by animalistic survival instinct, leaving me in the mud, grasping for home?

How would my mind cope? Would it collapse entirely? Would I be doomed to repeat the same terrible moment for the duration of my life, stuck in a padded place in a country that was once familiar?

Horrible horrible questions to ask yourself over Breakfast, but they remain questions, ones which I’m fortunate enough to ask in the safety of my pajamas.

So, If you, like me, struggle to find a place of reflection at 11 o’clock or throughout the day, ask yourself these questions. It won’t adequately describe the horror of what they experienced, but it’ll help you understand what they gave.

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