Centenary

King George attends the burial of the Unknown Warrior, in Westminster Abbey, 1920. Artist Frank O. Salisbury

For some reason, the image moved me to tears. The ninety-four year old monarch standing, black-clad, alone and in silent respect, beside the tomb of a man buried six years before her birth on the centenary of his committal to this final resting place. One woman, alone. The grave, outlined in the red of remembrance poppies, is lit by a cascade of white orchids and myrtle… a replica of her wedding bouquet, first placed there over seventy years before, and following a tradition begun by her own mother, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, in 1923, on her marriage to the man who would become King George VI.

Lady Elizabeth’s elder brother, Fergus, had been killed during the Battle of Loos in 1915, his body had been buried in the nearby quarry and the details of his grave lost. As she walked down the aisle, the young bride paused to lay her bouquet on the grave of the Unknown Warrior in a personal act of remembrance that has been upheld and continued by royal brides ever since.

The story of the Unknown Warrior goes back to 1916 when the Reverend David Railton, an Army Chaplain on the Western Front, saw a grave marked by a rough wooden cross, upon which was written simply, ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. An idea formed and he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, suggesting that an unknown soldier be buried amongst kings at the Abbey, to represent the countless dead of the Great War, across Britain and her territories. The idea found favour with both the Dean and the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George and a plan was made to so honour the nameless and faceless soldiers who had given all.

On the night of 7th  November 1920, the remains of several unidentified soldiers were carried, from a number of battlefields, to a chapel at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise, near Arras in France. He remains were placed in unmarked coffins beneath the Union Flag, making them impossible to distinguish one from the other. Brigadier Wyatt, with closed eyes, placed his hand on one of the coffins…the rest were taken away for reburial with all honours. The remains thus randomly chosen became the Unknown Warrior… the representative of hundreds of thousands of lives cut short by war.

There was no indication of rank, nor class, nor social status. Neither colour nor creed defines the Warrior. He is every mother’s son, every brother who did not return, every husband whose wife waited in vain, every father who did not see his children grow. There is a kinship in loss that defies any artificial border or barrier.

With great ceremony, the body of the Warrior was transported to England, laying one night in state in the great library of the castle of Boulogne, which had become a chapelle ardente, lit with myriad candles for the vigil held by the French 8th Infantry Regiment, who, as a company, had been awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

The coffin was then placed within a casket made of timbers from the oak trees at Hampton Court Palace. The casket was bound with iron before a medieval crusader’s sword, personally chosen by King George V from the Royal Collection, was fixed in place and a shield installed upon which is inscribed ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country’.

The Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey, November 1920 : IWM Non Commercial Licence.

The slow and dignified journey continued, crossing the Channel and finally reaching home… one man representing so many who would never reach home again. On the 11th November 1920, the casket was placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery drawn by six horses. Crowds lined the strets in silent respect as it passed through London’s streets to the cenotaph… the symbolic empty tomb… where it was joined by the King, the Royal Family and ministers, who followed the coffin to Westminster Abbey.

The casket was interred within the Abbey, in earth carried from each of the main battlefields in France. Later, the grave would be covered with a marble lid from Belgium, engraved with brass made from melted wartime munitions.

First, though, thousands waited to file past and pay their respects in a huge outpouring of national mourning.

But the guests of honour were the women…  around a hundred of them. All in their situation were invited.

Each one of them had lost their husband and all their sons in the war.

A hundred years… a mere handful of generations. I knew my great grandparents. They were there. It is not ancient history… it is our story and we continue to write it in blood.

File:Tomb of the Unknown Warrior - Westminster Abbey - London, England - 9 Nov. 2010.jpg
Tomb of the Unknown Warrior
Image: Mike cc-by-sa-2.0

As Her Majesty stood in that private ceremony to mark the centenary of the Unknown Warrior’s presence in the Abbey, was she thinking of her part in the history of this country, or simply as a woman, remembering her wedding day and grateful that the Warrior need not stand in place of her father, husband, sons or grandsons.

I have stood at the foot of the Warrior’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. It is the only tomb there upon which no foot may be set.  I have stood at the foot of his counterpart, buried simultaneously beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. And at both, I have wept. The tears of a wife, a daughter, a mother and a sister… tears I give thanks I never had to shed for my own sons and family. Tears I have shed for the mothers who weep still as wars and conflict continue to ravage our world and leave behind empty arms and hearts.

Three faces

For  November, it was a surprisingly pleasant morning. In need of somewhere to go to stretch our lockdown-cramped legs, we wandered to a neighbouring village to explore its history. Whilst personal preference may direct our attention to the ancient face of the land, it was because of more recent memory that we had landed in Whitchurch… this sleepy little backwater, like every other town, village and hamlet, has played its part and paid its price in time of war.

To most of us, the fallen from long ended wars are simply names inscribed upon the Rolls of Honour or cenotaph.  It is their families who feel the loss of life, love and presence most keenly. They may not even know what happened, how or where their loved ones died. There may be no grave at which to stand in mourning, no chance to say goodbye.

There are others who do return home from conflict, broken, scarred, both physically and mentally, to families who may be equally traumatised by separation and fear. Theirs are the forgotten stories… and sometimes it needs a name or a face better known to highlight and illustrate the tragedy.

Bolebec House: Image: Stuart France

Whitchurch is typical of so many of our Buckinghamshire villages, built along the course of the major road out of town. It has the almost obligatory Norman church, the remains of a Norman motte and bailey castle, a handful of holy wells, its fair share of half-timbered buildings and far more than its fair share of thatched cottages. Today it is home to around a thousand souls. Some, amongst the many who lived and served here, stand out.

Rex Whistler, self-portrait, circa 1934

Once, in the years of peace between the First and Second World Wars, Whitchurch was home to a young artist named Rex Whistler. He lived at Bolebec House, a beautiful old building whose back lawn nestles in the shadow of the old Norman castle, looking out across the valley. In 1933, Rex painted that scene, a painting now known as The Vale of Aylesbury, and famously used it as part of the advertising campaign for Shell.

One of the “Bright Young Things” of the 20s, Rex, a man of great charm, had made a name for himself as an artist, designer and illustrator as well as painting the portraits of the rich and famous and accepting commissions for murals. When war broke out, he was a successful artist and thirty five years old. He joined the army, and, in June 1940, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the  Welsh Guards.  On the 18th July 1944, he left his tank to go to the aid of other men in his unit, he was killed by a mortar bomb and lies in the military cemetery of Banneville-la-Campagne. He never came home.

At the far end of the chocolate-box village of Whitchurch, they played with bombs and explosives at The Firs. The house had been built in 1897 for Charles Gray who had served as an officer with the Imperial Yeomanry in South Africa.

By the outbreak of WWII, The Firs was owned by Major Arthur Abrahams, from whom it was requisitioned to serve as a part of Ministry of Defence 1 (MD1), also known as “Churchill’s Toyshop”. Housing around two hundred and fifty people, the Firs was part of a British weapon research and development project, responsible for dreaming up weapons like the limpet mine and anti-tank weapons… such as the one that killed Whistler. There could be no clearer indication of how humankind brings tragedy upon itself…

Joyce Anstruther, better known as Jan Struther

Just a few doors away from Whistler’s residence is Whitchurch House. This was the childhood home of Joyce Anstruther, a name unknown to most. She is better known as Jan Struther, who not only wrote some of our best-loved childhood hymns, such as “Lord of All Hopefullness”,”When a Knight Won His Spurs” and “Daisies are Our Silver”… songs which take me straight back to Assembly at school… she also created the character Mrs Miniver as a newspaper column for The Times.

Mrs Miniver was supposed to be an ordinary suburban housewife, but when the war began, her remit subtly changed, reflecting the changing world. The columns were eventually released as a book which became a real success, particularly in the US, which was still maintaining its neutrality at that time. Winston Churchill is credited with saying that the book had done more for the Allied cause than a flotilla of battleships and that the book (and later the film) was worth “six divisions of war effort.”

I have to wonder whether Jan Struther would have been glad about bringing the United States into the war, placing so many more at risk…or simply glad to see some end in sight?

Whitchurch House: Image: Stuart France

Then the movie rights were acquired by M.G.M who went on to make Mrs Miniver.

The movie, released in 1942 and rushed into theatres at the behest of President Roosevelt, touched hearts, especially across America, by showing how the war was affecting every corner of every family, in every village and street in Britain. The war was no longer some distant and hungry beast, growling in the night, but a persistent predator, taking away all that was most loved and cherished.

Even Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, wrote of the film that  while saying not one word against Germany, the film managed to become a powerful weapon against his regime.

Jan Struther, born Joyce Anstruther, later became Joyce Maxtone Graham and finally Joyce Placzek. She died of cancer in New York, in 1953 at the age of fifty two. She did come home and her ashes are interred beside those of her father in the family grave in Whitchurch.

Three stories… three different faces of war from one sleepy village. And yet, there is one thing they all share…they would all have recognised and agreed with the sermon a local vicar gives at the end of the film… and it has a relevance and resonance still today, though our wars are fought as much in the corridors of power as they are on the battlefield… and our search for discernment and truth remains our most urgent necessity.

“The homes of many of us have been destroyed, and the lives of young and old have been taken. There’s scarcely a household that hasn’t been struck to the heart. And why? Surely, you must have asked yourselves this question? Why, in all conscience, should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness? Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed?

“I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield, but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman, and child who loves freedom. Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead, they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves, and those who come after us, from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down.“

Lest we forget…

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Remember…

Paper poppies bloom, as fragile as the lives they represent. Every year it is the same, I try to find some way of saying what is in my heart and the words will not come.  I was not there, I have no right to speak of war and its atrocities. I have not seen it with my own eyes. I have never aimed a gun at another human being and been faced with the choice whether to kill or be killed. I have not tried to sleep in cold mud made from the earth of a foreign land mingled with the blood of my comrades. I have not lost my child to war.

I have no right to speak, but nor have I the right to remain silent when the price of my freedom to speak was so high. I have a duty to my own conscience and to all whose lives were given in service to their country or lost to the horror of some political expediency written in blood.

There are many tales of heroism and valour in the field, tales that highlight the beauty and nobility the human spirit can attain. But war is never beautiful, nor is it the glorious myth we have historically created when we need recruits.  War is born from the desire for power. Whether a formal declaration of war is made by the aggressor or the defenders, whether the war is fought for necessary or political resources, to uphold an ideal, for the betterment or protection of a way of life or for its imposition, the cause of every war is an idea…and ideas are born first in a single mind. For this single idea, or because we feel we must defend ourselves against it, we are prepared to sacrifice an entire generation, yet we will read about  tribes who sacrificed a single human life for the good of the community and call them barbaric.

Today, with our so-called smart weapons, we can obliterate a whole city remotely, not just one person, not even one generation, with the touch of a button.  Gruesome death is a constant on our TV and cinema screens, we even play games with it. The gift of life is cheapened and our reverence for human life seems a thing of the past. Yet that life is our own… and ironically, our fear of death seems to be greater now than ever before.

This year sees the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele. There is no accepted figure for the number of lives lost in that one, appalling battle, though it is certain that over half a million men were killed, maimed or wounded. That we do not even know how many is perhaps commentary enough.

Harry Patch, who was the last surviving, fighting soldier from WWI, fought in that battle. He died in 2009 at the age of 111, and was given a military funeral at which he requested not even ceremonial guns be present. He had spent eighty years trying to forget the horrors of war, but when he reached a hundred years old and was brought to the eyes of the media, he was once again asked to remember…and for the last years of his life, he spoke of little else.

Harry believed that war was wrong and that a war that would eventually be settled around a table should be fought there and not cost millions of lives in something he saw as “nothing better than legalised mass murder”.

Harry was wounded at Passchendaele by a shell that killed three of his friends. A short while before his death he was asked what it felt like to be the last man alive to have fought in the trenches.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “I sit there and think. And some nights I dream – of that first battle. I can’t forget it.

“I fell in a trench. There was a fella there. He must have been about our age. He was ripped shoulder to waist with shrapnel. I held his hand for the last 60 seconds of his life. He only said one word: ‘Mother’. I didn’t see her, but she was there. No doubt about it. He passed from this life into the next, and it felt as if I was in God’s presence.

“I’ve never got over it. You never forget it. Never.”

He spoke of how, from arriving on the battlefield to leaving it, wounded, months later, he never had a bath or a change of clothes. He spoke the fear and of the choice between shooting to kill or to wound and the pact he had made with some of his comrades never to kill… a pact that could have had them shot by their own commanding officers.

He spoke of a horror many of us will never know or understand. He hoped we never would.

Across the world we turn to remember with respect those who served their countries or their ideals in the Great War ‘to end all wars’ a hundred years ago and in all the arenas of war ever since. Regardless of the reasons for going to war, the valour, the sacrifice and the suffering of those who serve cannot be denied. Every year, there are those who call for an end to our remembrance, saying that it is now old history and as relevant to our lives as the wars of Rome or ancient Greece. I will wear my poppy with millions of others in the hope that in remembering, we can learn from our bloody history… for we continue to write it.

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million. Over 16 million died and over 20 million were wounded.

The total number of casualties in WW2 is thought to be between 60,000,000 to 85,000,000. Such was the scale of that conflict there is a gap where we simply do not know… a gap of some 25 million. As if the entire population of New York simply disappeared.

And that doesn’t include the casualties who suffered horrendously but survived their wounds.

It doesn’t include those who suffered the emotional damage, the mental scarring, the recurrent nightmares, the fear. It doesn’t include the orphans.

It doesn’t include the long term suffering of poverty, dispossession, or the racial and religious hatred that engenders or is engendered by war.

It doesn’t tell of the personal loss that touches all victims on all sides of a conflict… for they are all human beings, like you and me. It does not count the heartbreak of those who waited in vain for their children, siblings, parents and lovers to come home.

It doesn’t show the damage to the land, the mines that take lives long after the conflict has moved on, or the animals and birds decimated by bombing or being drafted into service.

The figures are cold and clinical. They do not dream. They do not wake up screaming.

The counts vary, depending upon who is doing the telling and why, but one thing they seem to agree on is that in total over 240 million men, women and children were killed in war in the 20th century.

And still it continues. Every day.

Since the beginning of recorded history major wars have killed an estimated four billion people… That figure is too vast for the mind to encompass. It is the equivalent of over half the human race alive today. Erase half of your family, half of the people you know or have ever known, half your friends… half your children. Then look at the cenotaphs or the names in the books of Remembrance. War does that to people.

We like to think of ourselves as an advanced civilised society… there has to be a better way and I hope and pray that, one day, we may find it.