A Sunlit Salute to The Fallen

I managed to get down to the Cenotaph last Tuesday for the Armistice Day ceremony. However, I did not manage to post any kind of tribute on the blog.  Better late than never, here are a few thoughts.

Whitehall runs through Westminster on a North-South axis, with Parliament Square and the Palace of Westminster immediately to the South.  Since its a road in the Northern Hemisphere, this means that during a mid-morning in November, the sun will be low in the sky behind the Victoria Tower.  Tuesday was crisp and clear, and as Big Ben struck eleven o’clock last Tuesday, the sun peaked out from behind some lingering cloudes and streamed down Westminster.  North of the Cenotaph, we onlookers raised our hands to our heads, to sheild our eyes from the glare.  An unwitting, yet entirely fitting, civilian salute to the dead.

Onlookers at the ceremony to mark the 90th Anniversary of the end of the Great War 1914-18
Onlookers at the ceremony to mark the 90th Anniversary of the end of the Great War 1914-18. 11th November 2008

For me, I always find the moment when music breaks the silence to be the most moving.  Bag-pipes, so often derided as a nuisance on the Edinburgh Royal Mile, find their niche at these sombre moments.  A brass band, a Welsh male voice choir, and a poem by Siegfreid Sassoon, Have You Forgotten Yet?

That word, that “yet”, challenges us.  Sassoon knows that we will forget, eventually, and the men who died at The Somme and elsewhere will eventually be known to us only as nameless fodder, much like the thousands who died at Waterloo.  Too far back in history to be properly human.  But no Seigfried, not yet, not while three men who fought in that war still roll down Whitehall in their chairs.

Who do we forget first?  Those young unmarried men without descendants, that’s who.   It is a crass, Darwinian truth that, for the most part, we are a nation descended from the survivors of war, not the fallen.  Its telling that the two poppies I planted in the Westminster Abbey Garden of Remembrance, I planted not for grandfathers, but for two distant uncles: 2nd. Lt. Roland Ingle, who I’ve written about before, and Flt. Lt. Reginald Rimmer, blown up over Burwash, East Sussex, during the Battle of Britain, 1940.

You silly, silly young men!  Positively eager to go-over-the-top.  Stubbornly climbing back into the cock-pit.  Zealous, brave, and long dead by the time you were my age: Thank you.

Tributes in the Garden of Remembrance, Westminster Abbey, London. 11.11.2008
Tributes in the Garden of Remembrance, Westminster Abbey, London. 11.11.2008. Photo by yrstrly