Early on Sunday morning as the sun rose high across the green British countryside myself and the family caught a train heading for London, tired and still half asleep but looking forward to a poignant yet exciting day. It was Remembrance Sunday and the fact that it was also the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War clearly hadn’t been missed in the great capital.
Throngs of people poured from the tube stations, the lines of black cabs and the iconic red buses, those on foot marching purposely with back packs and flasks. From the moment we walked out of Victoria Station the hairs on the back of my neck stood up as we entered the tide of people heading towards Westminster Abbey and The Cenotaph. What was normally a lonely quiet walk every year now had a chaotic and almost carnival air about it. To say it was busy was an understatement! We met with our family and laid our humble wooden cross among so many thousands of others at the foot of the great abbey and stood pondering for a while about a lost family member killed in far flung Singapore. It was in remembrance of my Nan’s brother, a man whom none of us had actually met! it somehow got lost as I stared at my son and explained he was it his great, great uncle. I became a little confused myself. Maybe even ashamed if I’m honest, were we ‘jumping on the band wagon’ as it were? The moment past, I was being hustled to move along and I decided that this was what today was all about. Remembering.
We mingled with the politicians, watched the royal entourage. We rubbed shoulders with the wounded, listened to their stories and felt ashamed. We spoke to the veterans of so many wars proudly displaying their medals or humbly covering them up and we were fascinated and again, sometimes ashamed.
It was a day to be alongside family and friends , to be in the company of so much pride and exuberance. You could smell the polish and Brasso and hear the creak of leather as the marching bands of the Guards regiments; the RAF and the Royal Marines moved like serpents down Great George Street to Horse Guards Parade. The guns of the Royal Horse Artillery sounding the eerie start of two minutes of silence for the fallen and sounding again when the first tears had been wiped away. It was a magnificent and moving experience as it always is but this year seemed that much busier, much more poignant and that much closer to the heart. Hundreds and thousands of people; united by one simple paper flower, the poppy. It was worn as a badge of remembrance, of respect and of thanks. Not just to those of the First World War but to every soldier and every civilian to have died or suffered for their country.
After braving the crush at The Cenotaph we wandered to the Tower of London to witness the sea of poppies, a sideshow of sideshows if you like. The huge crowds were too much for the police, too many for the old and young, stood, shuffling in awe and wonder at such a waste of life yet so tastefully remembered.
Poppies were everywhere I looked; on buses and taxis, on the sides of buildings and on virtually every human I saw that day. We don’t forget as a nation. We are strong and we’re as grateful now as ever for the sacrifice given by so many.
Of course there were tourists. Of course there were bystanders and the curious and the hangers on but there were also a million people who came to show their respect and did it gracefully and with dignity. Remembrance Day means so many things to so many different people. It’s what you believe that counts. It’s what you hold dear to yourself and what your memories and understanding of war and sacrifice are. It wasn’t a day for politics. It wasn’t really a day for religion. It was a day for private thoughts and the belief that one day, just one day maybe there would be a better solution to the world’s problems other than conflict. I hope and pray, for the likes of our children and grandchildren that this was even an option but in my heart of hearts I know it won’t happen during my lifetime.
I didn’t go to glorify war. I went, secretly, to hate it this year. I went to stand next to my son, only 14 in years but already far more mature in size and height. I went to glance at him and to worry. I went to be a proud father who looks upon his son as a child but knows he’s turning the corner into becoming a young man, an army cadet whose first promotion is already in the bag and who recently declared to an already knowing and concerned family that he would be joining the army at 18 after his education. He is well on his way to gathering the necessary grades in order to do so. Even his end of term reports had ‘Royal Engineers’ written on them. I went to monitor his reactions to the sites and I went to educate him in the loss and the suffering. I also went to talk him out of joining up. It’s the one conversation we didn’t have.
I pray that the day comes soon that the stonemason’s chisel is put down for ever and not another name is written upon a war memorial ever again.