Sunday the eleventh of November 2018 was a day of significance, it being the one hundredth anniversary of the Armistice of 1918. Due to the vagaries of the calendar, the centenary of the end of that Great War fell also on Remembrance Sunday. Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday falling together as they did, added an emotional weight to the date.
The reasons behind the start of the war of 1914 to 1918/19 are complex and confused. Today even in this the centenary year, historians still debate with passion, both the cause and the reasons for its end. There can be little doubt that despite the bravery and sacrifice of many, the waste of human life in a war that should never have taken place, haunts us even to this day.
The Great War, so called not because it was a good war but great because of the effort, the awesome terror and global significance, shames us. Unlike World War Two, that had perhaps clearer reasons behind its immediate cause. The first technological war of the twentieth century left so much unfinished business, so much resentment and ended with such an unfair peace, that further conflict was inevitable. Without World War One there could never have been a World War Two.
Today Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday commemorate quiet correctly, the glorious dead of both World Wars and all conflicts since. Sadly we neglect previous conflicts, perhaps primarily because they have been less of an influence and left a lesser mark upon our consciousness.
I come from a military family. My father was RAF ground radar in WWII and both my grandfathers served in the Great War. One serving with the Sherwood Foresters, saw action at Mons and on the Somme. They all came back, as did my uncles but other more distant members of my family did not. Two serving in the Royal Flying Corps died in the Great War and now lie buried in France. This is of course a similar tale for most of us today, we all come from families touched by the two World Wars.
Few of us however, have been touched by more recent conflicts and those older conflicts are almost lost to us now. I have a feeling of sadness because of this, as my own ancestors have served this country in several colonial wars, Boer, Zulu, and Indian. Our involvement in the Crimean War is however, still a matter of research.
I have not served my country and I therefore feel humbled by the actions of those who have. It was for this and for many other reasons that I chose to attend the Remembrance service in the neighbouring village. Up early on the Sunday, it was only a short walk and one I made in good time. I did not take a direct route however, choosing one than intercepted the parade as it entered the village from the far end of the parish.
Taking my station on the corner I was able to get a few poor shots of the crowds. Gloriously replete with the correct flags and awash with scouts, guides and members of the British Legion. I spotted a familiar face, an elderly man I do not know by name but that I see most days. Walking as he does with clockwork precision past my house every morning to the local newsagents.
This time and for the very first time, I saw him in his service blazer, complete with beret and regimental tie. I approached, said hello and shook his hand. Then I saw his medal and I was again humbled. He is the second holder of the Military Cross that I have met. He graciously consented to a picture.
I stood bareheaded, silent and thoughtful, during the prayers led by the local vicar and during the two minute silence. I only replaced my cap when the last post had ended. Then I returned to my exploration of the crowd and wreaths. A piper played beautifully and movingly nearby. Set into cement next to the war memorial were a series of painted stones, some bearing a poppy and others the names of the local dead.
A tall elderly gentleman was walking around the memorial, he appeared deep in thought but also ill at ease. He stood looking at the names and when I felt it appropriate to do so, I approached him. It transpired that the names he was viewing where those he knew in the air cadets, boys he grew up with and all had gone on to serve in WWII. Only he came back.
I learnt later from his daughter that he hadn’t wanted to wear his blazer or his medals. This should come as no surprise, it is rare for heroes to make a fuss. I posed him in as near the same position that I had earlier noticed him. A poignant and deeply significant picture was the result. Perhaps one of the most important pictures I have ever captured.
The crowd which numbered some three or four hundred, was beginning to disperse. Like many others, I decided on a pub lunch. The local hostelries did well, as all were busy. Sitting in the Royal Oak enjoying a Sunday lunch with two glasses of mead, I began to check my pictures. As always there was a mixture of happiness, relief and disappointment. So many poor shots to be deleted. Reflecting on the morning, the experience and those special meetings, I decided that on the way home I would explore the local churchyard.
My walk to the pub and that on leaving it, took me past poppies hung on lampposts and magnificent flags, flown to mark the occasion. The churchyard which I know well, overlooked by a thatched cottage with striking straw sculptures, contains several war graves. I explored them in silence and contemplation, spaced as they are amongst the older graves of many a local notable.
Leaving the churchyard and passing a rosebush on my way home, still in flower but slowly beginning to fade, I paused to consider the significance. The flower of Britain’s youth were lost in two world wars and those that survived? Like the rose they slowly fade away.
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