101 years ago our grandparents or, more likely, our great-grandparents, marked the end of the Great War with the Armistice of November 11th 1918. I am not sure most of us will ever be able to imagine how they felt after four years of catastrophic war, of millions dead, wounded, maimed, of the widows and orphans. It was, and still is, almost beyond comprehension. With cheering crowds and wholehearted rejoicing, bells were rung, bands paraded in the streets and fireworks filled the sky.
Although these words were actually written after the Second World War, I’m sure they were as appropriate to the first:
“For those who had lost loved ones in the conflict, it was a time to reflect”, and for many of the widows and widowers the war had produced, the noise and jubilation was “too much to bear”.
Then, a little over twenty years after the end of WW1, the Second World War began. Another five years later, after conflagration, the near collapse of civilization and the descent into a bottomless pit of inhumanity on a scale not seen before, this war also ended.
Armistice Day in this country is celebrated on the Sunday nearest to the 11th November, which has now become known as Remembrance Sunday, and is an established part of our calendar. It is a time for reflection and the poppies we wear to commemorate it represent our respect and acknowledgement of how much we owe to those who served both in those wars and the other conflicts that have taken place since then.
Next year, May 8th 2020, has also been designated as a bank holiday in the UK, to mark the 75th anniversary of the surrender of the German Government and the end of World War Two. On that day, King George VI spoke from the bomb-scarred Buckingham Palace, giving a message of thanksgiving which also remembered:
“those who will not come back, their constancy and courage in battle, their sacrifice and endurance in the face of a merciless enemy; let us remember the men in all the Services and the women in all the Services who have laid down their lives. We have come to the end of our tribulation, and they are not with us at the moment of rejoicing.”
Celebrations took place in many American cities, especially in Times Square in New York. President Truman addressed the American people from the White House, and in part commented that ‘We must work to bind up the wounds of a suffering world, to build an abiding peace.’
My father-in-law, just 21 years old and a lieutenant in the Royal Horse Guards at the end of the war, had already returned from Italy at this point. He and some fellow officers had been asked to Buckingham Palace to help celebrate. After the formalities, sixteen of them, all in uniform slipped out including the Royal Princesses, who had been on the balcony with their parents. The crowds in front of Buckingham Palace had spilled into Green Park where deckchairs and park benches were used to create bonfires as people danced and sang around the streets from Trafalgar Square to the Ritz, and this group of young people all in uniform, as so many others, were swept along like everyone else in happiness and relief. For the rest of his life, he said it was one of the most extraordinary events he has ever witnessed, such was the depth of emotion.
Also present in the crowd was the playwright Noel Coward, who walked back from Buckingham Palace to the Savoy Hotel (where he lived since his home was bombed in 1941) with his friend, the composer Ivor Novello., later noting in his diary: ‘I suppose this is the greatest day in our history.”
Like so many others up and down the country, our local church at Highclere, St Michael and All Angels, will be honouring those sacrifices and remembering those who were lost, by laying a wreath in their honour.
“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die” “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.”
Highclere hopes to mark VE Day next May, in the spirit of remembrance, of respect and reflection.