Every November, the nation pauses to remember those who have fallen in conflict, but what does Remembrance mean to those who have served in Britain’s Armed Forces?
WORDS: PAUL F COCKBURN
Brittle yellows, reds and browns fall to the ground; warm coats are pulled out from the backs of wardrobes; and dusk comes earlier than feels fair – all the vanguard of the autumnal weeks when people of all ages pin paper poppies to their lapels in a public display of remembrance of those who have died in the defence of the nation.
It was King George V who suggested, in 1919, that the British people should observe two minutes of ‘respectful silence’ to mark the first anniversary of the Armistice that had ended ‘The Great War’ on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. Almost immediately linked with the poppies that grew in the battlefield, the nation’s annual Remembrance quickly became not just a tribute to those who have died but also an invaluable fund-raising opportunity for the Royal British Legion which helps support still-living veterans and their families.
The best part of a century later – a century that has seen British Forces fight around the globe during the Second World War, and subsequently in Korea, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan – the public act of Remembrance is more popular than ever, despite most people in the UK no longer having a direct connection with either war or the nation’s Armed Forces.
THE SOLDIER’S VIEW
Some commentators are still amazed that this national desire for Remembrance hasn’t simply faded away as the Second World War generation has slowly died; in fact, the last decade has seen the opposite. Although Remembrance Sunday has been the preferred day for ‘official’ commemorations since the end of the Second World War, the decision in 1995 to also revive the two minute silence on Armistice Day has proved to be just as universally accepted.
But what does Remembrance mean to those who have actually served in Britain’s Armed Forces, who have seen friends and colleagues killed or injured in the line of duty?
Alex Heron and Donald Campbell are two veterans who share a connection with the Scottish military charity Erskine. For 91 year old Alex, Erskine has been his home for several years; for Donald, Erskine’s his new employer, following a 26 year career in the British Army.
Alex was born just months before that first act of National Remembrance; in 1937 he signed up ‘to see the world’ with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. Following training in Inverness and Catterick, Alex had a ‘magic’ year serving in India; this was brought to an end by the outbreak of the Second World War, during which the Cameron Highlanders fought in the deserts of Egypt. “All the bullets and the planes coming,” Alex remembers, “you just had to lie on the ground – it was all sand, you couldn’t dig a hole. We wore gas masks during the sandstorms, and you were just firing away with guns…”
He was among the Allied Forces who were unexpectedly captured at Tobruk by Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps. Subsequently, he spent three and a half years in Axis prisoner of war camps – a year in Italy before being moved into Germany as Allied Forces fought their way up the Italian Peninsula. Strange as it might seem, he says he preferred the German POW camp, if only because the Red Cross food parcels sent to them were not intercepted by Italian soldiers.
Alex always takes part in Erskine’s own Remembrance commemoration. “When it comes to the two minutes silence, you just think back to all your comrades getting shot and wounded,” he says. “Some friends got shot or injured. You stand there, it goes through your mind, all your pals who got shot and blown up. The prison camps were terrible; you cannae forget it.”
PUBLIC AND PRIVATE
Alex, who was ‘demobbed’ soon after the end of the Second World War, and returned to a family who hadn’t known if he was dead or alive for nigh on five years, is pleased that the British public continues to publicly remember its war dead. “Oh yes, we should,” he says. “It’s a good thing to have, Remembrance.”
For the manager of Erskine’s new Supported Transition project, Donald Campbell, Remembrance has long been a part of his life, from Boys’ Brigade and Air Cadet parades as a kid to during his 26 years in uniform. But, as he points out, Remembrance is not just a one-day event for many Services personnel. “I remember quite a few things throughout the year; most soldiers will have days when they lost colleagues, friends – that sort of stuff.”
When on Operations, of course, a formal Remembrance ceremony is not always possible. “We would always try and have a moment,” he says. “Sometimes in the midst of war or conflict, that could only be five minutes. If you had the capability, you would have a parade, just to mark the passing – however, most times it would be just getting people together, having a five minutes, just a quiet think with the boss, the Platoon commander or OC just saying a few words.”
PART OF RESETTLELMENT
Donald goes as far as suggesting that Remembrance will play an important part in his resettlement into civilian life. “Remembering things is a good way to put things to bed,” he says. “Not fully, because you always have the thought in your mind of people who have gone before you, who have been lost and it’s just good to have that little remembrance.”
This November, for the first time in decades, Donald will stand at a cenotaph as a civilian. “That’s going to be very strange,” he admits. “What’s even more poignant is that my battalion will actually be in Afghanistan, and it’s the first time in 26 years I’ve not deployed with the battalion. So I’ll be standing there thinking not just about people of the past, but also people who are out there now.”
Like Alex, Donald believes it’s important that Remembrance remains such a part of British life. “Up to about 10 years ago, Remembrance parades were mostly about the First and Second World Wars,” he says. “Now with Afghanistan being in the forefront, a lot of people are now looking at the present day Remembrance. There are a lot of new people getting involved with Remembrance, and I think it is very beneficial that the country as a whole remembers our fallen.”