Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Remember, Remember

‘Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy, but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.’ Sir Winston Churchill

Remember, remember the 11th November…

From the fun and fireworks of the Guy Fawkes bonfire to the poignant and fragile symbolism of the Flanders Poppy, the market place is the historic heart of our small town and the site where these two key dates in our history are remembered.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That marks our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
Though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae(1872-1918)

On Sunday I went to the Remembrance Service at St Thomas Becket church in Chapel-en-le-Frith, tucked away at the far end of the market place, in the heart of the old town. Combs Brownies are involved in the parade up the High Street which, inevitably, takes place in the rain; and Brown Owl has usually got a stinking cold. The uniforms, so carefully prepared, sashes worn proudly with red poppy attached, were all forlornly wrapped up in a hotchpotch of anoraks and coats. ‘Turned out nice again, then?’ said a friend, a wry smile playing across his lips. Indeed. The turnout to watch the march was slim, such was the weather. A couple of young boys opened their front door and looked out, holding their cereal bowls it would seem, while their father lurked in the shadows behind them. I recognised the woman from the hardware shop, and the local Conservative candidate who supported our Save the School campaign (unlike the Labour MP). The band played, the drums kept the beat, but this was lost on most of the young participants who were hunched against the wind and rain as they made their way up the hill, across the old cobbled market place where the War Memorial stands, and filed their way through the black iron railings and along the stone-flagged path through the gravestones into the handsome church.

The service begins at 10.30am with the vicar, vocalising his words in an absurd up and down parody of oratory ecclesiastical style (this is unfortunate), but in all other respects proceeds smoothly up to 11.00am and the Act of Remembrance, punctuated by some of my favourite hymns, including ‘Abide with Me’ and ‘Eternal Father strong to save’, as well as Elgar’s Nimrod. The Last Post was played from a lone trumpet at the back of the church – a more heartrending set of single notes you could never hear, their beauty weighed down by the solemnity of their meaning. The two minute silence has, in the past, been a fiasco with babies crying and toddlers wittering, mothers going ‘Sssshhhh’ and the Boys Brigade giggling, but this year, blessedly, we got nearly to the end without a sniff or a cough until finally a very patient baby got fed up. She did well. The Reveille, by the same lone trumpet, pulled us back out of our private contemplations and the Kohima Epitaph was read by a member of the Chapel branch of the Royal British Legion, his medals pinned proudly on his beige overcoat:

When you go home
Tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow
We gave our today

We sang ‘God is our strength and refuge’ to the tune of the Dambusters. The Sermon followed then we sang two more of my favourite hymns, ‘Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us’ and ‘Praise my soul the King of Heaven’.

From church back to the stone War Memorial on the market place, marking the loss of Chapel’s brothers. Here wreaths were laid and another two minute silence observed as the leaden skies threatened rain once more. A chill breeze blew up and the raindrops started to fall, on cue, as the band struck up and the march back down the High Street began.

I met the girls, bedraggled, back down at the Scout Hut after the mayor had warmly thanked all participants and sent us home to our Sunday lunches and the warmth of our houses. I drove them home and as we pulled into the garage and I turned off the engine there was a moment’s silence before E said ‘I wish we hadn’t gone now’. Puzzled, I asked her why and she said ‘because I’m cold and wet and my hands are frozen.’ I couldn’t help it, but tears welled in my eyes and my voice went tight and choked. She couldn’t have uttered anything more inappropriate or more appropriate. I asked her to think, then, of the men, the many, many men, not so much older than herself, who had lain out in the cold and wet and mud of the First World War trenches waiting for, and enduring, a cold, wet and lonely death; far from their mothers, far from their fathers, far from everyone who loved them and from everything that was home – the sacredness of which they were out there fighting for. For me it is that elemental and spiritual loneliness that so many thousands endured that breaks my heart. It is that which I contemplate and try my hardest to imagine during that momentous two minute silence.

Fallen Leaves

Today I was meant to be going to John Lewis but, truth to tell, I couldn’t quite bring myself to be there, in that haven of materialism, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the moment the guns finally stopped. Instead I stayed at home, turning on the BBC (no other channel would do) at about 15 minutes to the hour. Many of you out there, with me, will have seen the faces of three of the oldest men alive, and three of just four surviving servicemen of the Great War: Henry Allingham, Harry Patch and William Stone (even their names tell a story). Henry Allingham insisted on trying to lay his wreath himself; Harry Patch held his hands to his face; William Stone sang the words of the hymn. Henry, at 112, is the oldest man in Europe and the oldest surviving member of the Great War; Harry, at 108, is the last man alive to serve in the trenches and such was the impact of this it took him 100 years to speak publicly about it for the first time; William Stone, at 108, is the last known veteran to have served in both the First and Second World Wars and believes his family has a Guardian Angel looking after them as he, his four brothers and his three uncles all survived too. As you watch them close their eyes, you cannot begin to know the horrors they have seen, the pain they have endured, both for themselves and for their fallen friends and comrades. I couldn’t help noticing some of the small gestures of human kindness and respect for these marvellous men that the servicemen and women by their sides showed: the gloved white hand of the current holder of the Victoria Cross squeezing Harry Patch’s shoulder; the flapping label on the wreath, disturbed by the November wind, held out of the face of William Stone. I looked out of the kitchen windows onto my garden and found some metaphors in nature: as the silence had begun, so had a passing rain shower; as the silence ended a shaft of weak autumn sunlight illuminated the kitchen wall; as Siegfried Sassoon’s Aftermath was read, so a sudden vortex of air whirled leaves chaotically around the lawn and I spotted one lone brown leaf tossed into the faded straw-like stalks of a border perennial, trapped as a man in the barbed wire of the trenches.

This is not sentimental. This is what I saw and this is how I feel. The older my father gets, and he is now 80, the more choked and emotional he gets whenever telling a war time story. But I never dismiss it lightly. As we grow older we somehow become more connected with death, and in that connection perhaps we start to understand the true meaning of life and of the freedom to live it as we wish. There are many brave men and women who continue to give up their own lives, their own freedoms, for the greater good of us all. We should never underestimate this sacrifice, or treat it lightly, and I will try and make sure my children understand this too.

Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same-and War’s a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz-
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack-
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads-those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget

Siegfried Sassoon, 1919

Post Script
With extraordinary timing, the phone rang as I was writing this, and it was the Padre. We have not heard from him, bar a change of address notice, since his visit here that April when he was off to do his service in Iraq. He lost many soldiers, it was a dangerous time and no-one was safe, and he was very pleased to be able to return, almost a year ago now, after the desert and the dust, the chaos and uncertainty, to this green and pleasant land. Rupert Brook's The Soldier seems as relevant now as it was nearly a century ago:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there is some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

The following links may be of interest. The first is the BBC World Service's coverage of the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph which William Stone, Harry Patch and Henry Allingham all attended; the second is the story of those that lost their lives after the Armistice was agreed - with many interesting comments from readers.

Did you observe the silence and if so, where were you? I'd love to know.


SMS said...

Isn't it amazing how pausing in silence shakes us into a more sensitive state of mind. Great words.


Hi SMS - thanks for stopping by. Yes, that 'stopping the world' two minutes is incredibly powerful. It never ceases to move me and, as you say, transform your state of being. If only it could happen more often...the world pausing to think, to hold its breath. The pace at which we live these days leaves precious time for serious thought.

Pipany said...

Hello HOTH and thank you for that absolutely wonderful blog. I am going to re-read it later when I have more time to absorb it as it spoke to me somehow. How can we ever understand the horrors these men and women saw in the name of freedom? So poignant xx


Thank you Pipany, I'm glad it said something to you. I do think it is important - all the more so in the world we seem currently to be inhibiting. I've added a question at the bottom which you may like to answer...

toady said...

That sums it up exactly. I watched those three wonderful old chaps on the TV and was choked especially when he tried to stand to lay his own wreath. Very humbling.

Hannah Velten said...

It always hits me - the horror of war - when I see the survivors at Rememberance services...whether the British Legion men (at our local church on Sunday) or those in London yesterday. Horrific memories they must be holding...and sadly the world is still full of war and horror. You'd think we would have learnt from others past experiences by now. Wonderful blog. Mootia x

Faith said...

So glad Pipany directed me to your blog, and I have tears in my eyes as I did at Mass on Sunday, and at our town's Remembrance parade and on Monday. My husband works nights and he came home and we watched it in bed. Those 3 old gentleman are amazing. I was brought up with the wars, as it were, as my parents were married the year before war broke out.... but the young, like your daughter with her cold hands, and my daughters.... we must keep the memory of what these young men (and women) suffered alive. Many thanks for your blog, which I will also read again.

JanetD said...

very thought provoking and brought back memories of my childhood in Hayfield, not far from you,with the annual brownies marches.Hope that we and our future generations NEVER forget.(Lawyerlady)

Milla said...

fantastic blog, Heron. Very very good indeed. We walked up the road to the memorial cross and were buffetted by the wind. Smallest reluctant to go but was glad he had which both surprised and moved me. Our brownies and cubs etc "aren't allowed" to wear anoraks, they have to wrap up warm from beneath so they all look like teletubbies but with their uniform intact.

Woozle1967 said...

No-one could have summed this up better. Beautiful, poignant, evocative.........

J and I have been to Ypres, the Menin Gate, Hill 60, Poperinge to name but a few. We were at the Menin Gate in 1998 for the 80th anniversary and when those poppies came down, there was not a dry eye to be seen.

This year I was watching it on the TV as I especially wanted to see our last surviving veterans.

As you say, we need more moments when the world pauses to think.........x

gertyb said...

Your blog moved me more than I can say. I was in a similar position on Sunday when my son paraded with the cubs to the cross in the village. He did his duty without understanding why and I am going to let him read your words to understand the world a little better

Exmoorjane said...

Wonderful post. Yes, we always observe the silence - both times (that always puzzles me a bit though as I don't quite get why we do it on the Sunday as well as the 11th).
I was in Taunton and had completely forgotten the date and time. CAme out of M&S to find the road blocked and a crowd gathered. It was quite extraordinary. The whole town centre came to a halt. A couple of Japanese tourists (why? In Taunton?) wandered by, chatting, and tehn even they stopped. Nobody moved. The shop assistants all came out. Total silence.
Quite spine-tingling.
The Last Post and Reveille always make me cry - and I had to wipe tears out of my eyes yet again.
So there you are - where I was.

Is it my imagination or are more people observing it now? I seem to see a lot more poppies. Hope that's so.

Elizabethd said...

Thank you, that was wonderful to read.
We were in church for the silence on 9th Nov, then on 11th we were at our Ceremonie in the Breton village where we live. the Mayor reads a proclamation, a wreath of fresh flowers is laid, children read a little poem, then the silence is kept.
And after, we were all invited to a vin d'honneur in the bars!

Anonymous said...

Very poignant post. It is indeed something for everyone to think about.

CJ xx

mountainear said...

How right you are in saying that as we get older the preciousness of life has more impact - perhaps we have through experience come to understand how easily it can be snatched away.

As a Brownie, like your daughter, I never really 'got' Church Parade or the Festival of Remembrance. I studied The War Poets at A level, as an impressionable teenager and their words have had a profound effect on my thinking ever since.

No, we must not forget those who sacrificed their lives so that we might enjoy freedom - nor should we forget those who do so today.

Thank you for a most moving blog, which I shall reread.

Sally's Chateau said...

We observed the two minute silence as we watched the parade on sunday and yesterday our small village held a very moving service. I have always instilled the importance of taking part in this to my children, lovely thoughtful blog.

elizabethm said...

Utterly great blog. I am so pleased you have put into words the thoughts I have had many times over. I also like the idea of your speaking to your child, who was after all only saying what a child would say, about what had happened in a way that would mean something. I suspect she will remember that conversation when she is an adult.
I kept the two minute silence on Prestatyn station, following a few very telling words from the man in the ticket office about remembering both the sacrifice and the futility of war which will make me look at him quite differently next week.

® ♫ The Brit ♪ ® said...

Wonderful post and full of emotion!
I read it and found myself there in England respecting the 2 minute silence!
Unfortunately there isn't any recognition of poppy/rememberance day here in Brazil and I didn't even know what day it was until I had read on the internet that it had already happened... these are just some of the things that get missed and forgotten being in another country... along with Father's Day sometimes as the UK Father's Day is many months after the Brazilian Father's Day. Valentine's Day is different too here... it's in June - it's all very confusing!
Have a great week!!

Cee said...

Hi HOTH - I was introducing my 14 year old son to the WW1 soldier poets, and then we paused and realised that it was the 11th hour on the 90th anniversary ...

No poppies here.

As a teen I didn't get Remembrance Day and Parade (how could we?). And then with my own small boys in tow, we had an autumn holiday in Northern France. We visited the trenches and the battlefields. Bone white crosses covered the gentle hills in every direction, as far as the eye could see. I'm with Sassoon - we must not forget and we cannot let our children go unknowing into the future either.

KittyB said...

A wonderful blog. We spent the 11th hour at the war memorial outside the village church where my son goes to school. 44 children stood in silence as a Bugler in an immaculate uniform - red coat with gold braid, sharp black trousers with a red stripe, shiny shoes with silver spurs and a busby (wish I knew what regiment) - played the last post into the wind and flying leaves. A veteran quietly recited a poem and the British Legion stalwart raised a lowered the flag. Tears in my eyes, lump in my throat.

CAMILLA said...

Hello HOTH,

Thank you for sharing that wonderful poignant post.

I did pay my respects in Church on Remembrance Sunday, and did shed a tear, and thought of those brave soldiers who fought in battle and gave their lives that we may live on. I pray that one day Peace will come.

Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving such lovely comments, so kind.



My thanks to all of you who have read this post and left your kind comments. It is lovely, and interesting, to hear your own experiences of and reflections on the day, and I am only glad to have struck a chord with so many on what I believe, and feel, to be such a profound occasion.

Sue said...

Hi, and thanks for your nice comment on my blog! Great to find yours - you have made me chuckle AND think inside five minutes, which is quite a skill. Sorry to miss you at Styal.

I was once in Marks and Spencers during the two minute silence, having totally forgotten about it that year. Quite bizarre, as from under my fringe I noticed a couple of people sneaking a look at price tags whilst pretending to look sober and quiet...

Sue said...

PS I too love Mary Plain! Having been brought up on my mother's first editions, I have never found anyone else who has even heard of her, the Owl Man and the Fur Coat Lady...

Now I am going to have to get the old books out of the cellar!

Sue said...

PPS Are you married to a tall good-looking man with curly hair, quite slim, who was wearing wellies and had some nice little girls in tow?

Working mum said...

Lovely post.

We had a very moving and traditional ceremony at school. Old pupils came back and wore their medals. Present pupils were beautifully well behaved. A current pupil played the last post on her trumpet.

The chaplain told of the first Remembrance Day when all traffic stood still. We listened to her sermon to the background noise of cars, lorries, trains and planes outside.

I'm glad that I'm a teacher and can commemorate this event every year at 11 o'clock on the 11th, and that we are teaching our children to do the same.

DJ Kirkby said...

Hethe black box brought me here but I see that you are a fellow purple coo'er. Beautiful post and I like your blog music too.

Pili pala said...

Sorry to be so late ...
I loved your blog; you put into words emotions felt by many. I do think the fact that our soldiers are in foreign parts today and are being injured, dying for our country, has made people reflect. The fact that young people are continuing to lose their health, faculties and lives is a cause for great sadness. The bravery of those young boys in the trenches continues today and must never be forgotten, disrespected or taken for granted. I now spend most of my tiime in the SW France. Armastice is given great reverence. I sing with a few friends and one of our songs is "Willie McBride"; when singing to a French audience I do hope they understand the meaning of the words.Those young men died in a foreign land to protect their freedom too

Grumpy Old Ken said...

Excellent. Superb blog and looks the part.

How strange I should come across your blog via Brazil but I'm new to this blogging scene. Would love to put you on my list or whatever you experts call it. Hope you find time to glance at my efforts. Have a project in mind next year if I live that long. Spend many a night wild camping up or near Winnets.
Will be back

Hildred said...

I am late in commenting on your posting, Hoth, having just come across it. I Found it reverent, poignant and comforting to know that there is still such awareness and sympathy for the young men who went so valiantly to protect our rights and freedoms.

As always we were present at the Remembrance Day service in our village in the Similkameen Valley of British Columbia, and as is usual, my husband read the Names of the Fallen at the beginning of the service.

He is one of only a few Veterans of the Second World War in this community, - a former Lancaster Pilot.

In 1995 we were in England for a Squadron reunion (my husband was seconded to the RAF) and we crossed to the Continent to visit the battlefields of France, Belgium and Holland, as well as the cemeteries where his two brothers lie buried. It was in June, - the sky was blue and benign, and the clouds were soft. There were birds singing in the trees as my husband knelt beside his brothers' graves, and the crosses marked the sad presence of hundreds and hundreds of Canadian soldiers killed within a two or three week period.

Yesterday I posted to my blog a memorial to mark my father's birthday. He would have been 110 years old. Amongst the pictures was one of him sitting on a sandbagged wall in France. He was wounded at Cambrai just before the end of the First World War. I thought as I wrote of the terrible conditions he and all his comrades fought in, - the mud, the stench, the loneliness,the terrific din and frenzy of the guns, and I wondered how we could ever forget.

Thank you for your posting, - it is so comforting and hopeful to know that young people remember with such vivid understanding. My husband and I are now in our eighties, and I understand your comments about the growing awareness of the precious quality
of life and an appreciation for the sacrifices that were made.

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