Wednesday, 11 November 2015

A Memory: A Selection for Remembrance Day

As usual, a selection from the small booklet I compile for our 11 am silence in the office.

The Poppy

The poppy has a long association with Remembrance Day. But how did the distinctive red flower become such a potent symbol of our remembrance of the sacrifices made in past wars?

Scarlet corn poppies (popaver rhoeas) grow naturally in conditions of disturbed earth throughout Western Europe.

In late 1914, the fields of Northern France and Flanders were ripped open as World War One raged through Europe's heart. Once the conflict was over the poppy was one of the only plants to grow on the otherwise barren battlefields.

The poppy came to represent the immeasurable sacrifice made by his comrades and quickly became a lasting memorial to those who died in World War One and later conflicts.

It was adopted by The Royal British Legion as the symbol for their Poppy Appeal, in aid of those serving in the British Armed Forces, after its formation in 1921.

France 1914

Reporting from France for the Saturday Evening Post in 1914, journalist Cora Harris concluded:

What men suffer through war is written in histories but what women suffer is never written. When one writes of the women’s side of the war one cannot tell of battles won, or of the glories that crown the heads of victorious men. It must be a story of sorrows; of despair; of poverty; of privations patiently endured.

Afghanistan, 2007

Royal Marine John Thornton was just 22 when he was killed by a deadly improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. The brutally indiscriminate bombs are the stuff of nightmares for soldiers the world over.

Here is an extract from the diaries Lieutenant Thornton kept before his death.

Deployment Day, September 20, 2007

Spirits are high. Anticipation of the coming six months is clear to see on the faces of the young. Before the adrenalin builds we must all go through our goodbyes with families and friends. My friends are very understanding. Grandparents waved goodbye a week or so before. My brother is second to last. Then the last of the goodbyes, face to face with my mum and dad. Always makes me upset with guilt.I watched my mum cry and my dad comfort her as I got into my car and drove to Taunton whilst fighting back my tears.

My ‘death letters’ are full of feeling and emotion so – as I write to my parents and brothers imagining that I was dead – I have to allow my tears to shed. This is the only time I expect to cry.

Armistice 1918

On the morning of November 11th I was called into the Colonel’s room “to take some notes from the telephone.” They were all there and got up and made room for me at the table. I think they must have thought that I knew shorthand which I didn’t. A voice, very clear, thank God, said “Ready?” and began to dictate the Terms of the Armistice. They muttered a bit crowding round me and I said fiercely “Oh shut up I can’t hear!” and the skies didn’t fall.

I wrote in my own private short-long-hand and half my mind was in a prayer that I should be able to read it back. I could hear my heart thumping and hear the silence in the room around me. When the voice stopped I said mechanically “understood” and got up.

I made four copies of what I had written and took them in and went back to my little office staff and told them. I can’t remember much what we said: I can only remember being so cold, and crying, and trying not to let the others see.

That night it was all over Paris. There were sounds of cheering and rejoicing down the Boulevards as I walked home. What I thought of was “Recessional.” The Pension produced some champagne at dinner and we drank the loyal toast. And then across the table G. lifted her glass to me and said “Absent”. I did not know her story nor she mine, but I drank to my friends who were dead and to my friends who, wounded, imprisoned, battered, shaken, exhausted, were alive in a new, and a terrible world.

- May Wedderburn Cannan, Paris 1918

A Memory

There was no sound at all, no crying in the village,
Nothing you would count as sound, that is, after the shells;
Only behind a wall the low sobbing of women,
The creaking of a door, a lost dog-nothing else.
Silence which might be felt, no pity in the silence,
Horrible, soft like blood, down all the blood-stained ways;
In the middle of the street two corpses lie unburied,
And a bayoneted woman stares in the market-place.
Humble and ruined folk-for these no pride of conquest,
Their only prayer: "O Lord, give us our daily bread!"
Not by the battle fires, the shrapnel are we haunted;
Who shall deliver us from the memory of these dead?

- Margaret Sackville

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