Lest We Forget

Memorial Ceremony – The Somme

‘At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.’

Laurence Binyon

As a sort of follow-up to my recent blog ‘Unforgettable Memories?’ about the predeliction of people to forget things, sometimes everyday (relatively) unimportant things, this blog, given the date and time of year is about the importance of remembering some fairly cataclysmic events and ongoing related loss. ‘Unforgettable Memories?’ covered the circumstances of temporary memory loss, although at the time it can be embarrassing to forget friends and family members names at the critical moment, and probably more important if your mind goes blank in the middle of an important examination, interview or on stage. However retaining national and global memory of big events is critical, lest we make the same mistakes over and over again.

I am talking of course of, in the UK and Commonwealth at least, the observance of both the 11th hour of the 11th day of the year, commemorating the coming into effect of the Armistice signed in 1918 to terminate the First World War, and Remembrance Sunday, when the British nation as a whole, regardless of creed, can observe a 2 minutes silence (having already hopefully observed one on the 11th November, if not a Sunday) to remember the ultimate sacrifice of the millions of people, mostly servicemen and women, who died for their country in war.

Apart from the national celebrations, the parade of veterans and laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London and at the National Arboretum in the Midlands, smaller events occur throughout the nation at local war memorials and in local churches, as well as wherever British servicemen are serving overseas – currently particularly in Afghanistan. I have my own memories of taking parts in parades, laying wreaths, standing in rain and cold for the mandatory two minutes running through my own memories, and remeniscences of tours of the WWI battlefields and great cemeteries with their impressive rows of uniform white gravestones. There have also been lighter moments…

As adjutant of the Military Vehicle Depot at Ashchurch, near Tewkesbury, I led a parade from the depot to the local church for the Remembrance Day service. On route we passed the war memorial, which we were required so salute, me saluting and the marching soldiers with a smart ‘eyes right’. I had mentally rehearsed this and knew that I had to give the appropriate command on the left foot. As we approached the memorial, my mind (as previously discussed) went blank, and to my horror I heard myself give the order ‘eyes left’ as we approached the memorial, which if followed would have meant all the soldiers would have looked away. Fortunately I saluted to the right, and the soldiers, wisely ignored the actual words and did eyes right to where they knew the memorial to be. Later in the church, the door having been barred, a latecomer tried to break their way in during the 2 minute silence…  A few years later as a major and serving in Antwerp, I represented the Army at the Armistice Remembrance ceremony at the Menin Gate at Ypres, where every day in remembrance, the Last Post is played on bugles. Holding the large wreath beneath the arch, waiting my turn to lay it, the wreath pin pricked my thumb and I began to bleed quietly and copiously but standing rigidly to attention in uniform could do nothing about it. After a short while I was able to lay my wreath and staunch the blood, but had the distinction of leaving a small pool of blood on the pavement stones beneath the Menin Gate!  A few years further on as a Lieutenant Colonel, I was at the war memorial in Woodstock, Gloucestershire, again representing the Army at the wreath-laying and 2 minutes silence. Also present was the Duke of Marlborough from nearby Blenheim, the local principal landowner. A very tall man, he didn’t notice the row of short Brownies in front of him, and moving forward to lay his wreath, stumbled over them and later complained that he ‘couldn’t see them’. However he quickly recovered and lay his wreath with due decorum.

That aside, it is important that the nation, particularly now that there are no longer any survivors from WWI and only a dwindling number of WWII survivors, needs to remember the importance of wearing poppies, attending the services but most importantly, why we remember. The youth of today have never experienced the horrors of war, and despite scenes from Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, can not know the reality, and so might one day be tempted to take risks with World peace. The EU may not be entirely united, especially fiscally, but at least war is unthinkable between its members, and it can pose as peacekeeper under some circumstances.

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