This year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War 1. This was not the war to end wars it was said to be, instead it was the transition from the direct man-on-man combat of earlier conflicts to a scientific, engineered, calculated way of killing people efficiently, and not just military personnel. Explosives became more destructive, weapons more accurate (or more terrifying) and war became more exposed to people at home – either through direct attacks or more so by the loss of sons, brothers, lovers, husbands to the battlefield. Some 16 million people died from the effects of this war.
It is the Armistice of 11 November 1918 that we commemorate, the ending of battle (but not the war), the return of peace, but this is no jingoistic outpouring of past victory, instead it is solemn remembrance of the ultimate sacrifice made by hundreds of thousands of servicemen from all parts of the globe. Unlike some countries in Europe, the UK collective remembrance is on the Sunday before the 11th of November, this year I was in London, visiting the Tower of London, Westminster and Whitehall.
I live a short drive from the battlefields of Flanders and Northern France – wherever you drive you see roadsigns pointing the way to immaculate War Graves, some just a small corner of village churchyard, others are massive sites with row upon row of neat graves and vast walls naming the fallen. The Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Tyne Cot near Passendale in Belgium is the largest of these with almost 12,000 burials. Such is war, however that not all of the fallen where buried in known graves.The Menin Gate in nearby Ypres the names of soldiers with no known grave are listed; recording and honouring the missing is so important. The Menin Gate is a massive structure close to the centre of Ypres. Almost 55,000 names are carved on the gate walls. Each night there is a ceremony where the last post is played. Although the gate is large it was not big enough to take all of the names of the missing, 35,000 more names had to be inscribed at Tyne Cot.
Sunday we went to the Tower of London to see the now almost completed layout of ceramic poppies, one for each of the British fallen, we had seen it a couple of times earlier in the year as the poppies were being installed, this time we would go inside the tower and view from the inside looking out. We arrived just before 11 and observed silence marked by the bosun’s pipe calls from HMS Seven (moored alongside HMS Belfast).
We stood outside the Tower to hear the last post before taking the river bus to Embankment to see the projected falling poppies on the Elizabeth Tower of Parliament and then home via the Cenotaph.