Cenotaph: a monument or empty tomb honouring a person or persons whose remains are elsewhere.
I have just come back from a very powerful and moving service.
It is remembrance Sunday, where we remember those who gave their lives fighting for peace all those years ago. Wesley (the preacher) spoke powerfully about loss and letting go.
I thought that instead of voicing my own reflections, I would share a letter written to me by my late Grandfather last year. It includes an article he wrote on remembrance Sunday. I hope it can mean as much to you as it does to me.
15 November 2009
Your Mother suggested I should send you a copy of an article I have just sent to my old school website. It may or may not be published there and I think the format of the site is far too complicated so things get missed.
The article was prompted by the recent memorial services, as I am probably one of the last people to have known those mentioned in it.
The site is the 'Royal High School Club in London' (http://www.royalhigh.org.uk) and there is a site map, which looks useful. If you should go to 'committee' from the home page, you will eventually find a picture of me with a glass in my hand.
I hope the term is going well, and please give my best wishes to Rob. Grandma also sends her love to both.
By James Henry Randell
I remember, in the two minute silence, I remember fresh-faced boys in my class. In my memory they are still young and not as when I look in the mirror, or occasionally see other boys from those years.
A generation before mine, the conversation of aunts and uncles was studded with trench slang and what the Sergeant said. I can remember ten years after the first Armistice sitting with my mother and an aunt in front of the wireless. We were listening to the ceremony from the cenotaph. I knew about it because I knew I had listened to it the year before, although that has gone beyond my present recall. There was the bang of a gun and everything went silent except for the rustle of the late autumn leaves until the next bang and then they sang ‘Oh God our help’. My mother, remembering in the silence, said, ‘Harold was such a nice boy...’.
It wasn’t just the servicemen who died from my class. There were two boys who shared the same name but were not related. One was heavily built, and fair haired, and had a particular way of standing – slightly to one side, easy going and with a curiosity about things. The other was a bit shorter and was more intense. His over-riding passion was ‘guiders’, the boxes on wheels that were steered with your feet, and could reach incredible speeds down a hill, with no brakes. He made models of them, streamlining the box, modifying the steering. He also had a curiosity about things and the way they went together. Fairly early in ‘our’ war, there had been air raids in Glasgow. The anti-aircraft guns round Edinburgh had joined in, firing at enemy bombers both ways. One shell arcing through the summer holiday air had landed somewhere in the Pentland Hills having failed to explode, until one of the boys called to the others in curiosity, when it did. I remember going to the funeral, myself barely in long trousers, seeing the white coffins carried to the graves.
Later into the war the men teachers started to disappear, being replaced by lady teachers. In an all male environment where a Miss C, the beak’s secretary, had been the only lady to about 600 males, this could be a revolutionary experience. Most of them had been teachers, whose husbands were away in the services. G in my class had that tall, gaunt, dark, highland look of a future seeing, seventh son of a seventh son, although he only had an older sister. His father was in the regular army and was serving in India and from whom G had no doubt learned to call ladies a respectful ‘ma’am’, thus solving what was for us the problem of saying ‘Miss’ to a known ‘Mrs’. This teacher of English set us an essay, which I think must have had a fairly broad subject. Going over them in class the next day, she said of G’s, ‘It’s not the way it is written, but i have never known so young a person with such an attitude to, and expectation of death.’ What she read had visibly disturbed her. On our last day in school after we had gone through the memorial door, and gathered in our old form room; G came up to me, more formal than the others and slightly unexpectedly shook my hand. ‘So long,’ we said, because we never said ‘Goodbye’ in those days. He went out of the room, crunched across the gravel to the main gate and strode down Regent Road to the Post Office. Some time later in North-west France, I think he must have been in the so-called birdcage – the Bocage, a country criss-crossed by hedges. Here by repute the German mortar teams could drop a bomb on your back collar stud and everyone went with their heads permanently down into their shoulders. Anyway, his essay prediction came true.
From time to time the societies or organisations of the school, the Literary and Debating Society, The Cadet Corps, the Scouts, would organise a dance in the gym of the prep schoolat Northfield Broadway. If you were on leave or could wangle a pass it was a good place to be as everyone tried to go and you could meet friendsand hear what was happening. I tended to get out of uniform as as quickly as possible and put on the lurid sports jacket and tie of what I though was a girl puller. On this evening, Ali, who was disabled and to his chagrin was not wanted in the forces, as I arrived told me that D was there and what’s more had brought a girlfriend with him. Not specially known for chasing after girls like some of us this was a surprise. And there he was, immaculate, smartly pressed, gleaming in his uniform, immensely pleased and proud of the young lady by his side. He introduced us. She was charming, delightful, his pride well placed. On D-day with his rifle weighing 9lbs, his ammunition pouches full of four fully loaded bren magazines, a tin hat weighing lord knows what, so called ammunition boots on his feet, a full water bottle, the small pack of his battle order webbing , with some food boxed in mess tins, what else he had hoped to ease the next couple of days, a cotton sling with pockets of clips full of .303 rounds, an entrenching tool and probably a carrier full of mortar bombs, he came off the landing craft. There is a bump you can feel, as the bottom of the craft hits the sand and the sailors lift the ramp and everyone moves forward. If it was a sand bank and not a real beach, there would have been deep water at the end of the ramp, well over a man’s head. Had it been the real beach there would have been invisible rocks or hazards below the water to trip a man and once down keep him down by the weight of what was fixed to him. D didn’t make it onto the beach.
There may have been others, as there were for older years.
In the two minutes silence, ‘They were such nice boys............’.