The 11th hour,
of the 11th day,
of the 11th month.
Every year we see this rather odd ritual. Old men, in suits smelling of mothballs, wearing ribbons and medals on their chest, parading up and down our streets and squares. To most of the children who see them, it must seem strange. Each year and another war has begun. Children, why is this so? Well it is because we have failed in a promise. Failed to learn a lesson and failed to pass that lesson on to you, our children. What is all the fuss about? The air we breathe, is a result of the pain and suffering the "Old Contemptibles" endured. So my friends, let us go back through the mists of time and remember…..
The date: July 1st 1916. The time 07.00 hours. The place: Somme, France.
They came from towns and villages from Astbury to Zennor. Amiens to Z…. They came from the farms, offices, factories and public schools. Pals from Manchester. Scousers, Brummies, Scots,Geordies,Taffies & Frenchies. They came from towns and villages often so small no one has ever heard of them. They left behind, mothers, fathers, wives, sweethearts, siblings and children. They left behind their country. It wasn’t for adventure or glory that they came, though some hoped for it. They came because their way of life was threatened.
This is not a place of budding poppies or neat white crosses….. There is nothing to inspire or evoke greatness, only acrid, oily smoke filling the air and stinging the eyes. The cachophony of heavy guns is so deafening it is impossible to think. You advance, the straps of your backpack, biting into your shoulderblades, step by step, rifle in hand, you advance, through a hail of machine gun fire, to Montauban, an impossible objective. Then silence. You crumble and fall. You are dead.
Those who live lay in the mud, with the stink of your stale blood, and rotting flesh. The stench of cordite is your sacramental incense. They lay with bodies torn apart for hours, sometimes days, slowly dying. They suffer for each breath you and I take for granted. All they want is to see loved ones a last, final time……
Observe the glory of war, for the only glory here is in surviving it. Many of them are still in their teens, so young they are little more than children. Many do not understand why they are dying, because the pain has taken their reason. But we know why. They went because it was important to continue to have the freedoms we now enjoy. They went because the world was being threatened by tyranny and oppression. They went to defend a way of life.
Since that day, when my Great Uncle died, the list of battlefields grows: Verdun, El Alemein, Normandy, Burma, Korea, Malaya, Falklands, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. The list is endless, each one a foreign field, wet with British blood. There is no grave, no white cross, only his name, JAMES HAROLD BOARDMAN is engraved on a marble tablet, and in the hearts of his family.
My children, at the end of "The War to end Wars", a promise was made. The nation promised that it would remember all they endured and honour them for it. Those that were left promised that they would learn and try to do better, so that no more of our people would die on our behalf. Let us remember that there is a cost for freedom and that these men paid the ultimate price, for our freedom. So please, always remember them.
[ inspired by an original piece by D Mulligan.]
Anthem for doomed youth.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
[18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918]