Wednesday, 8 August 2018

The Silent Soldier

I have just returned from the inauguration of 'The Silent Soldier' in Buckingham - on the wall of the Town Council Chamber (opposite Waitrose). There were many people there to mark the occasion and remember those who fell and who returned from the First World War. It was a solemn moment of commemoration. Our Town Crier heralded the event and I welcomed everyone who came along. The Chairman of the Buckingham & District Royal British Legion, Mr Andrew Cooper then said these opening and familiar words (from the poem by Robert Laurence Binyon)
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.

After some moments of reflection, I then went on to give this speech:

This is all part of a nationwide effort by the Royal British Legion to remind people that this is a very special year. It is one hundred years since the peace was declared at the of the First World War, the Great War or indeed, as it was called, the War to End to all Wars.

Today is an auspicious day: the Battle of Amiens, also known as the Third Battle of Picardy (French: 3ème Bataille de Picardie), was the opening phase of the Allied offensive which began on 8 August 1918, later known as the Hundred Days Offensive, that ultimately led to the end of the First World War.

With thanks to Philip Sturtivant for this research, I would like us all to note that the last man from Buckingham to die in the Great War before the 11th November was Frederich Erbach, who was English but born of German parents. At the time of enlisting he was listed as a lodger at the Old Gaol. Frederich was 38 years old when he died in the 10th General Hospital in Rouen on the 7th November 1918 of influenza. He was a sapper in the ‘L’ Signal Battalion of the Royal Engineers.

He, along with many, many men from Buckingham, died in the Great War. Many others arrived home, severely injured physically or emotionally or both. In our act of remembrance today, as with all other similar occasions, we must never ever forget, that we are remembering real people with real lives whose existence on this earth was cut short or terribly harmed by the dreadful scourge of armed conflict.

The Silent Soldier stands as a tribute to those who didn’t return home and to those whose lives would never be the same again. The Silent Soldier serves to remind us of those who did make it back. 

Following the end of the war in November 1918, the process of demobilisation and discharge was still a long process as the British Army still had commitments to fulfil in Germany, North Russia and in the garrisons of the Empire. 

On arrival back in England the men would move to a Dispersal Centre, this was a hutted or tented camp or barracks where they received a railway warrant or ticket to their home station. From there they were on their own, and would be seen across the country, walking back home, down the roads and across the fields, returning to their families. Most of the war service men were back in civilian life by the end of 1919.

Just for a moment, try to imagine this silhouette is of a of a soldier, a 100 years ago, finally reaching his home here in Buckingham. If we had been here a century ago, how would we have felt to have seen him arrive? I wonder how he would have been feeling? Or perhaps as one of my Town Council officer colleagues has suggested, the silhouette represents the voids left behind by the men who did not return. How would their families have reacted when peace was declared? Can we imagine ourselves in their shoes?

Buckingham Town Council and the Royal British Legion have a shared aim to ensure that we pay our respects to those who gave so much.

I will end with a poem by our Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, which I find very moving. She wrote the “Last Post” to mark the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, the two longest surviving soldiers from the 1914-18 First World War.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud ...
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home -
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce - No - Decorum - No - Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too -
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert -
and light a cigarette.
There's coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.

I thanked everyone who came along: the assembly included many veterans, and others townsfolk, most of the Town Councillors, journalists from the University and some visitors from France. 

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