Thursday, 29 October 2009
For my Dad, least we forget.
So in the same way I did something to connect with my mother after she died I did the same for my Dad after he died.
My Dad was born in 1929 and was therefore just a year too young to be involved in the war, much to his disgust,as it was Dad's dearest wish to be in the army.
But it was not to be and the war ended. My father had an amazing sense of loyalty which in a way made life very difficult for him. And so for his job he joined the family business. He was the youngest of three, but both his older sister and brother were not prepared to have anything to do with the business. In fact they were both a bit feckless and spent years being financially supported by their parents.
But not Dad, he joined his father managing their loriner business ( Walsall, where I come from is the centre of the saddlery industry and a loriners make the buckles bits and stirrups that go with the horses equipment.)
He met and married by Mum, and as already stated they were very much in love and very happy. But Dad hated his job, so to make his life outside of home bearable, he joined the Territorial Army. He loved playing part time soldier. He loved going to the drill hall once or twice a week and doing whatever the soldiers did there. He loved the annual camp that he was sent on. He rose through the ranks finally to the rank of Major and was awarded the TD medal with bar eventually.
He was on the South Staffs Regiment, as had his father and Uncles before him. Both his Uncles had been killed in World War I. It had been one of his greatest wishes to got to Ypres in Belgium to pay his respects to the fallen there, but his life was very difficult emotionally and he never made it.
So after his death I did it for him, going with my friend Jenny for a long weekend three years ago.
Ypres is a city not far from the border between France and Belgium and in WWI was the closest city to the battle field known as Passendale. The city was almost completely destroyed, and has lovingly been restored so that it is difficult now to identify it with the many photographs of how annihilated it was back then.
Our hotel was lovely, unexpectedly so, which came in later. I had driven my car over, so we were two gorgeous women in a sports car with the roof down most of the time. But we were far to emotionally wound up to even notice.
The list is long of the places we visited, but the two that stand out more than any other, and probably because of the scale of them were, Tyne Cot and the Menin Gate.
Tyne Cot is the biggest Commonwealth Cemetery in the world. It is the size of perhaps three or four football pitches with row upon row of graves. Each one beautifully cared for the Commonwealth Graves Commission. It is an awesome place and not in a good way. It is just unbelievable to think that this vast area is just full of young men who fell at Passendale. And then there is the visitor centre.
It is a very simple square structure with not much inside it. Except this wall on which photographs are shown, they change every few seconds and as they do a voice intones the name of the dead soldier and his age. It is devastatingly moving. You can do nothing, but stand in front of it for as long as you are able, and just watch this sad roll call, in my case with the tears pouring down my face.
Then there is the Menin Gate, every single night of the year there is the Last Post Ceremony when the bugles are played and people pay homage to the fallen. On the walls of the Menin Gate there are thousands upon thousands of names engraved of men who have lost their lives and have no grave.
As we got there,two lots of trainee soldiers marched through the Gate to stand at either end. At the far end they were engineers they were dressed in shirts and ties, no uniform. And were reasonably organised in their marching and parading. At the other end were a group of trainee Guards all in blazers and the standard of their marching and parading was infinitely more professional. Between these two groups of young men were the people who'd come to watch including J and me. We'd managed to get to the front, right under the arch and were standing next to the young Guards.
What happens here is, a regiment or association brings it's Colours(flag of the Regiment) and the bearer of the Colours keeps the flag lowered until the last post is sounded , and then the Colours are raised to commemorate the particular company it represents. Then many wreaths are laid, every day by different people or groups. Every single day of the year.
So the old soldier carrying the Colours walked down the steps in the middle of the Gate and waited. The Last Post sounded and the Colours were raised. I could not believe my eyes, there in front of me were the Colours of the South Staffs Regiment.
The regiment associated with my family for the best part of a hundred years. And I had unknowingly turned up on the night that they were presented. Again the tears were falling down my face and J's.
It was (and is) an incredibly moving Ceremony to witness. And to know that it goes on day after day and has done since the Gate was built in the 1920s is a testament to those people who died for us, in the War to end all Wars.
The weekend was emotionally draining, we knew it was going to be. There is so much to take in, and so much to be aware of in what you can't see. I'm so glad I went with J, as we both were able to be open with each other about what we felt and our friendship is so strong that we could be there for each other.
By Sunday lunch though we could take no more, and the hotel came into it's own with a bottle of Champagne that we toasted those people in our lives and histories that needed toasting. And then spent a long time eating a delicious lunch that was just the right amount of indulgence to work as a counter balance to the rest of the weekend.
Now I have not only been to Ypres with J, the following year we went to the Somme in France. And there on one cold and wet morning in May at the hugest monument to the dead I'd seen we found the names of both our dead Great Uncles. Amazingly their names were either side of the main entrance. My Great Uncle 19 and in the South Staffs. J's Uncle 34, and in the Manchester Regiment. And there we stood friends for 15 years, and our Great Uncles within touching distance of each other on this mighty tribute. Another day for tears and hugs between us.
This year we went to Amsterdam and took in Anne Frank's house. And next year we plan to got to Krakow and to Auschwitz. Then I think we have all we can do to remember, so we can tell our children and our grandchildren. As increasingly there are less and less people to remember. But it is so vital that we bear witness so that these atrocities can never happen again.
And what about my Dad, well I am my Father's daughter, and I too have those senses of loyalty, right and wrong, the need to remember, they are all in me. So I know that if my Dad could see me, he'd be proud that I've done those things in his name.