"This is the coffin of an unknown soldier. But he is only unknown to you. We knew him. We knew them all. He was not unknown to us."
This moving line from 'FE Young VC' at Hitchin's Market Theatre brought me close to tears. It suddenly struck me that the only reason there are memorials to unknown soldiers is because there are no survivors to name the lost. In many battles of the Great War, the loss of life on both sides was simply dreadful. Spoken by a real man, fictionalised by writer Kirk Foster and actor Keith Swainston, this perspective brought home the reality of life a century ago.
Part of Kirk's play focused on life in Hitchin in the years prior to the start of the war in August 1914. The house I live in - coincidentally next door to a house Kirk himself used to inhabit - was built in that period and I couldn't help but relate the version of Young's youth with that of those of a similar age who had previously called my home their own.
When a play forces you to rethink your view of a historical event, it can be considered a success. Without doubt, Keith's performance as Frank, reminiscing on his life and sudden death in the weeks approaching the end of the war, was an inspired and confident one. He was utterly credible in speaking the imagined words of a real man.
Frank Young was undoubtedly a hero - who else is awarded the Victoria Cross? He was also a real man and that sense of reality and ordinariness emphasised the horror of a war where Young and his men fought to regain the trenches they had occupied three years earlier.
The name FE Young VC is the final one inscribed on Hitchin's war memorial and his story is one that should be told to everyone in the town. We will remember them, even the unknown.
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