As a scout leader it is a constant battle to get scouts to Remembrance Sunday Parade. I have often thought about why this is?. We all know that at 11 on the 11th day of the 11th month, World War One came to an end. In the United Kingdom we show are respect by a minutes silence to remember all those who have died in conflict since. We know this because we learn it from school and the annual exposure from The Royal British Legion ‘Poppy Appeal’.
When I was a scout I remember being sent to Remembrance Sunday Parade by my parents. My dad was a big supporter of the Poppy Appeal. He did almost full service in the Royal Military Police so understood first hand the consequences of war. For me however it was still just a formality. I was told I should feel emotional about those who had died In battle, truth is I felt nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of respect for the bravery of soldiers going to war but emotionally I was empty, I would stand on parade in the cold and count down the minutes till I could get back in the warm. On hindsight I don’t think I had any idea of the devastation.
As a Scout Leader In 2007 I was presented with an opportunity to go to Ypres, Belgium with an Explorer Scout group from Warwickshire over the weekend of Remembrance Sunday.
I jumped at the chance and thought ‘Why not, it’l be a laugh’ The coach took us to the youth hostel in Lille where we would be staying. The first night everyone’s spirits were high, New surroundings New Country. The Leader who had organised the trip told us to ‘make the most of tonight as you will be emotionally drained tomorrow!’ at the time, given my feelings towards the trip at this point I couldn’t see that happening.
On the Saturday we visited many locations, two locations stuck in my mind due to the contrast:
The Langemark German War cemetery:
I remember discussing with another scout how eerie it felt. It felt strange as the war cemeteries I had seen in the media seemed to celebrate those people who had died in conflict. The ones I had previously seen stood out from their surroundings. The Langemark cemetery however seemed to blend into the land, almost like it didn’t want to be noticed! It was suggested that perhaps the Germans were ashamed of WWI and WWII. But why not celebrate their soldiers? Those buried were following orders, and were exposed to the exact same horrors as any other solider fighting in the wars…suddenly I found myself thinking and becoming a little emotional. A gentle introduction for our next visit:
Tyne Cott Cemetery:
This is one of many more British Cemeteries. Unlike Langemark Cemetery this was a clear statement on the landscape. The regimented graves stretched for as far as I could see, even then they were dwarfed by the monument at the entrance. It truly is a magnificent site. I started to see the scale of those lost their lives and that it really had effected both sides.
The Menin Gate is a war memorial in ypres Belgium. It is dedicated to British and commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Sailent of WWI whose graves are unknown. The gate stands proudly at the eastern exit of the town. Following the Menin Gate Memorial opening in 1927, the citizens of Ypres wanted to express their gratitude towards those who had given their lives for Belgium’s freedom. Every evening at 20:00, Buglers from the local Fire Brigade close the road which passes under the memorial and sound the Last Post. Here they take the act of remembrance very seriously.
We were to be joining this act of remembrance on Remembrance Sunday. It was a shock and honor when I was asked if I would like to bare the Union flag (Only called the Union Jack when flying from a ship) for our contingent. It was more of a shock when I was informed that I would be baring the Union flag for UK Scouts. Looking around at the flags present, I soon realized I was baring the Union flag for the UK! (No pressure!) Suddenly I felt huge responsibility.
I was placed center stage at the Menin gate. However I had flash backs to being on parade when I was younger, it was cold and the service seemed to drag. I couldn’t understand or follow the service as all the speeches were in french which I didn’t speak or understand. I entertained myself by focusing on the intricate pattern on the walls of the monument, only it wasn’t a pattern it was 54,000 names! Each one representing someone whose grave was unknown!
For the first time I could clearly visualize the devastation. Unlike the Langemark cemetery and Tyne Cot Cemetery these people were never located and buried! Worse still this represented a very small percentage of those who had given their lives. Given there lives for us. Given their lives to safeguard the inhabitants of plannet earth. I shed a tear at the Menin Gate partly sadness for their sacrifice and partly happiness that they had not been forgotten. Here we were 89 years since the end of WWI showing our respect. It was at this point something changed. I understood.
I have not missed Remembrance Sunday Parade since. During the minutes silence I think back to standing at the Menin gate. Remembering the pattern on the walls, and I shed another tear. I also remember the cemeteries, the contrast and that it was not just Britain and British ailed forces that lost lives. I will be sending my children along to parades and I hope that they and my scouts one day find their own symbol of why it is important that we remember them.
‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.’
-‘The Fallen’ by Robert Laurence Binyon