For Remembrance Sunday 2019

As I get older I find that I am moved to tears more often than I used to be. I have no idea why that should be: do we become more sensitive with age, or are our tear ducts more active? Whatever the reason, I found it happening to me on Friday morning as I watched the BBC’s Breakfast programme. In the run up to Remembrance Sunday they ran a piece about a gentleman called Harry Billinge: Harry is 93 and is a veteran of the Normandy landings – i.e. D-Day – and is collecting money for a memorial to those who gave their lives there. They also featured Harry as part of their programme earlier this year, marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day. On both occasions he was interviewed at some length, and both times this wonderful man has moved me to tears. Within an hour or so of today’s broadcast someone had uploaded the full interview to YouTube, and I share it now for you, in case you haven’t seen it before. It is eleven minutes long, but is well worth your time to watch it:

Harry doesn’t like to be called a hero – he says he was one of the lucky ones, those who returned from the beaches. But his story is compelling. Just an ordinary man, he was, as he says, ‘taught by this lovely country to kill people,’ and describes it all as ‘what a waste of life.’ In those brief phrases he encapsulates the horror and futility of war. I was born in Dover in 1953, just eight years after the end of WW2. Due to its proximity to the French mainland, and being on the flight path to London, Dover suffered horribly: 2,226 shells and 464 bombs landed in or around the town, 216 civilians were killed, and I grew up with everyday reminders of the destruction that war brings. 10,056 premises were damaged, many of them so badly that they had to be demolished. This little clip gives you a brief idea of what the town went through: Pathe News jingoism at its finest!  There were many bomb sites where there had been buildings, and regeneration was progressing rapidly. But we had, on our doorstep, a living history lesson, and I have always carried that with me through my lifetime. This photo was taken in 1940 just down the road from where I lived for the first 20 months of my life, not that I knew it like this, of course:

Snargate Street, Dover ©️Kent Messenger

Even 20 years after that photo there were still sites boarded up. The rubble had been cleared, and a major rebuilding programme was in progress. This was happening across the UK and throughout Europe, and I hope we never see anything like it again. Such a waste of resources, but even that becomes insignificant when compared with the huge number of lives that were lost.

I mentioned that Harry had also been a part of Breakfast’s D-Day 75th anniversary programme. Again, in case you missed it, here it is:

If you can watch that without a tear or two in your eye, I can only say that your heart is harder than mine!

A year or two back I came across a little poem which addresses the point that, so many years on, there are far fewer who lived through those times and, therefore, there is a risk that we will begin to forget the sacrifices made by so many so that we can live a free life today. I hope this will never be the case, and that what the poet describes won’t happen:


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.

(Taken from ‘For The Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon, September 1914)

 

We should never forget.

Remembrance Sunday 2017

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.

(Taken from ‘For The Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon, September 1914)

As has become my custom, I’m marking Remembrance Sunday. Those words by Laurence Binyon never lose their meaning or their simple power, their power to remind us of the sacrifice made by so many to protect the way of life we enjoy today – above all, our freedom. In previous years I have referred to attempts to pervert that democratic freedom by those who make efforts to destroy it and, sadly, people continue to confuse a belief that war is wrong with the misguided view that we should not commemorate those sacrifices.

I believe war to be abhorrent. However, that does not stop me from marking my respect for anyone who has ever taken part in a campaign to protect my freedom. I will observe the official silence in my own way, and will give them my silent thanks. Official commemorations began in the UK in 1919, after the end of the First World War, and have since developed to include the Second World War and service women and men from other campaigns. In recent years the official parade through the town of Epping, where I live, has been under threat of cancellation, due to a lack of policing resources. This is far too important an event to be forgotten and cast to the mists of history, just because of funding cutbacks for the police. With every passing year, fewer veterans of the Second World War remain, and I think it disrespectful to them and their fallen comrades that political and economic considerations interfere.

Another thing to which I take exception is the attempt by fascist groups like Britain First to hijack the poppy, the symbol of remembrance. They have somehow created an agenda which claims that those who don’t wear a poppy are being disrespectful, and should be castigated for it. In effect, they have set themselves up as vigilantes, stirring up antipathy towards those who choose not to wear a poppy. This seems to me to be the same kind of fake outrage that Trump has created over the #takeaknee protests in the US, and has as much validity: i.e. none. The freedom that our forebears fought to preserve included the freedom to choose for ourselves whether to observe an act of remembrance, and whether we should wear a poppy as a mark of respect. But choosing not to wear it isn’t of itself disrespectful, and I object to people who claim to be ‘patriots’ using this argument for their own bigoted, narrow-minded political ends.

Whilst I’m in rant mode, here’s another thought. The original Armistice, to end the First World War, was at 11am on the 11th November 1918 – the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. Here in the UK this has become Remembrance Sunday over the years. This means that only once every five years or so do we actually have our main service of remembrance on the 11th November, although of course we still do observe the two minutes’ silence at 11am on the 11th – but this is increasingly becoming lost in the midst of our everyday lives. As is often pointed out, the UK has far fewer public holidays than most other countries and I wonder whether 11th November should become one, as it is in France and Belgium. In that way, we would always be concentrating our remembering on the one right day and that, to me, would be the ultimate act of remembrance. Next year sees the centenary of the end of WW1 and I can think of no better time to declare 11th November as a new public holiday for the UK, although as luck would have it 11.11.18 does actually fall on a Sunday! I doubt it will be a huge success but I’ve started a petition in support of this on 38Degrees. You can find it here

Do please feel free to sign it – I think I’m the only signatory so far!

Some – particularly amongst younger people – feel that there is some kind of compulsion to wear a poppy and, as is the way with youth, rebel against this: whilst this is perhaps understandable, it doesn’t do much to help their understanding of the real symbolism of the poppy and why we use it to remember the fallen. I fear that with the passing of time the importance of this event is decreasing, as this little poem illustrates:

Wherever you are, however you do it, I hope that you will be able to spare a moment today to give thanks for those who have died to protect your and my way of life. We owe them so much.