Saturday, 12 November 2011

We Will Remember Them

(Written 11:11:11).

For our tomorrows, they gave their today.

Every year, like millions of others, when the clock strikes eleven, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month I observe two minutes silence. I remember those who gave their lives so that we could live in freedom.

It’s a long time since I actually went to The Cenotaph. I was probably in my Brownie uniform. But today I decided to proudly wear my poppy and visit my local war memorial to pay my respects.

Pause to remember.
As the Town Hall clock struck the hour, the crowd fell silent while the last post rang out. People came out of the shops and offices and gathered quietly, each with their own thoughts of someone, somewhere who didn’t come home.

We will remember them.
Back in the 1970’s when I was last at The Cenotaph in my Brownie uniform, the crowd included people from The Great War (1914-1918). The old people from my childhood fought on the Somme and lost their sweethearts at Paschendale. Although they never spoke about it, we all knew of their sadness. 

That generation has gone now, as have most from the Second World War. But even though so much time has passed – soon it will be the 100th Anniversary since the start of the First World War - it was touching to see so many people in a town in South Manchester pausing to remember.

For the pals who never came home.
The Lady Mayoress and children from the local school came forward and placed their poppy crosses at the base of the memorial, followed by an old soldier with beret and medals walking on two sticks. He placed his cross and made a quivering salute. 

Old women in the crowd dabbed their eyes – who were in their thoughts? Past, present or future?

Similar scenes were played out this morning in cities, towns and villages across the UK, remembering that moment when the armistice bought an end to the catastrophe of the First World War. It was very dignified and I felt very proud. 

Although Remembrance Day is not just about The Great War. It's also to remember all our troops who have been killed or injured in action, right to the present day in Afghanistan. But somehow I always end up back with the Tommy's of the First World War.

‘Remembering’ in a northern industrial city does seems particularly poignant. This is where whole towns and cities signed up to fight together. The Manchester Pals,The Bradford Pals, The Sheffield Pals. Men who worked together, drank together and ultimately died together as cannon fodder on The Somme. Members of Kitchener's Army who all left for a big adventure and to see the world, and who simply never came back.

When the clock struck eleven, I had my own memories. I thought about my Granddad Staples who at 14 yrs tried to join The Bradford Pals, but was caught out for being underage – which was a good job because most of them were killed in the summer of 1916. 

I thought about my great uncle Joe, a stretcher bearer in the First World War, who got caught in no-man’s land and was gassed while stranded in a shell hole for three days.

I thought about my great auntie Edith, whose sweetheart was killed just days before the war ended in 1918. Like so many of her generation, she mourned him for the rest of her life and never married.

I thought about Sapper William Hackett (VC), a miner from Mexborough, where I grew up, who was awarded the Victoria Cross. When the tunnel he was digging under enemy trenches collapsed and he and four fellow miners were trapped in a gallery, he dug for 20 hours until the outside party reached them. After helping three trapped miners escape through the small hole in the earth, he refused to leave the fourth member of the party who was too injured to be moved, saying ‘I am a tunneller, I must look after the others first.’ The gallery collapsed and he was lost.

So many personal stories of bravery and tragedy.

I’m feeling it particularly strongly about the First World War this year because back in March, dad and I went on a ‘dad and daughter’ trip to the Western Front battlefields. 

So I’ve stood on The Somme. I’ve walked over Flanders fields. I’ve been in the trenches. I’ve crossed no-man’s land. I’ve been and seen it for myself – I’ve stood where they died.

'War is a series of catastrophes which results in victory.' Please watch this real footage from The Battle of The Somme.

The preserved trenches of Santuary Wood, Flanders, Belgium.

If you’ve never been to the First World War Battlefields, then go. It’s fascinating and horrifying in equal measures.

I couldn’t believe how close together everything was, we’d be driving along a rural lane when suddenly our guide (an amazing historian) would tell us that we were crossing the front line – ‘Now’....<<pause>>.... ‘And now you’re in German territory!’ 

Back and forth they fought over the same small strip of land, and on every corner and in every fold of the land there was a cemetery. Not just two or three graves, but ‘2,000 in this one and 5,000 in that one.’

The stupidity and monumental mistakes which led to 400,000 British, 200,000 French and 650,000 German lives being lost over just six miles on The Somme (1916), were staggering.

The British pals from the industrial cities were considered too stupid to do anything other than walk slowly across no-man's land in a straight line, carrying massive packs on their backs. The German machine guns just mowed them down in the line where they walked. It must have been horrendous seeing your friends fall around you, knowing you would be next.

I wasn’t expecting 80% of the graves to be unidentified. Sometimes their regiments could be identified by their buttons, but mostly the graves simply said ‘A Soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.’ 

Then there were the memorials with tens of thousands of names, young men from the British and allied forces lost forever. 55,000 on the Menin Gate in Ypres and 34,000 on the Tyne Cot Memorial Wall and 73,000 on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing on The Somme.

Tyne Cot Memorial - Paschendale, Belgium. 34,000 names of soldiers with unknown graves.

Menin Gate - Ypres, Belgium. 55,000 names.

Inside the Menin Gate.

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing - The Somme, France. 73,000 names.
Dad and I had our own mission. At Tyne Cot we found the name of my great great uncle – Alfred Pool from the West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales' Own). My great uncle died last year, but his wife is still going strong at 92 years young. So when we found Alfred’s name on the wall, we phoned her and my dad said the words of remembrance:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Alfred Pool, died 25/04/1918 aged 21 years.

Dad pointing to Alfred's name.

At Thiepval we found the name of Evelyn Lintott, a remarkable footballer and teacher. Worshiped by his pupils, he taught my Granddad Staples in Bradford. Evelyn died on the first day of the Somme – click on this link to read his incredible story

Evelyn Lintott, died 01/07/1916 aged 33 years.

Dad pointing to Evelyn's name on the Thiepval Monument to the Missing.

Even now, nearly 100 years on, the farmers are still digging live shells out of the fields when they plough. They leave them at the road intersections to be collected by the army. 

The whole experience was almost too big for me. Standing in the cemeteries, I just didn’t know how to tackle it. Should I:

  • Imagine all the bodies laid out under me?
  • Think about one in particular?
  • Think about how they died?
  • Think about how they lived?
  • Think about the impact it had on their family and friends left behind?

It was overwhelming. But the Commonwealth cemeteries were filled with the most amazing love and dignity. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cares for them with the utmost attention. They are full of flowers and warmth and are definitely not forgotten, because they are visited all the time.

The following are just a few more pictures which I hope you will find interesting as we remember on this day, 11th November 2011.

The spot where the soldiers from opposing trenches played football on Christmas day.
Remembered by football fans.

The German cemetery at Langemarck, Flanders, Belgium.

Remains of front line trenches, Delville Wood, The Somme, France.
The Lochnagar Crater, one of 16 mines detonated on the first day of The Somme. 60,000lbs of explosive.

Mother caribou calling her young. Newfoundland Park, Beaumont Hamel, The Somme.

By the time the Canadian troops had made it the 100m to this tree. All their Officers were dead.

For me this trip was about reconnecting with the old people I remember from my childhood and saying that we will never forget the sacrifice they made for us.  

No comments:

Post a Comment