Wednesday 5 November 2014

Coronel: The Sense of Loss

Less than a week ago, on October 31st. I posted a blog (see below) on the Battle of Coronel, the hundredth anniversary of which fell on November 1st.  In the five days since then it has proved the most-viewed blog-post I’ve ever written, with 1206 views so far and still counting.

I’ve been trying to analyse why this is so and I’ve come to the conclusion that, even after a century, the sense of bereavement is still powerful. I got this sense from many of the communications I received afterwards, many by Twitter. These came from the United States and from Germany, as well as from Britain, and most were from readers whose families had not been affected directly, but who were still moved by the tragedy and who shared in the feeling of loss. In the blog I referred to the 1600 British casualties – the entire crews of two cruisers, HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth. The exact figure was indeed higher, 1654 in total, and I feel somewhat ashamed that I was not more exact, for each of those extra 54 men had his own tragedy, a family, ambitions, hopes for a future that never came.

This was brought home very poignantly by one response-tweet in particular. In it a correspondent forwarded a photograph of a grandfather who died on Good Hope, a young man in uniform radiating pride and confidence, a man one could imagine having have liked and respected had one encountered him years later. He would have been about the age of my own grandfather at the time - he could have lived on into the 1970s, could have seen the moon landing on television, could have gloried in his grandchildren. I was moved by awareness of the brutal cutting off of a life that could have been productive and happy but even more than this the photograph made the misery of the family left behind almost palpable. One could visualise the shock of the initial news, the mourning parents, the bereaved wife and the uncomprehending children, all bewildered not just by loss but by the future’s uncertainty. In this single case the tragedy seems immense, multiplied by hundreds it seems almost infinite.

At times one despairs about the future of humanity, about the greed and cruelty that so often dominate the flow of history. But what stands in the way of this, what gives us hope, is that so many of us still feel for each other, whether we know them directly or not, that  we feel the loss of lives a century ago as much as we feel them today. We don’t get it right much of the time – maybe even most of the time – but as long as we hold on to that high valuation we place on life we’ll still win through.

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