Tuesday, 11 November 2008
‘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.
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.
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
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.