Just as the US observes Veterans Day today, so Britain marks the sacrifices of its soldiers on Remembrance Day each November 11th, the anniversary of the armistice that brought an end to the fighting in World War I.
In his poem ‘MCMXIV’ (which Derb and I have previously posted), Philip Larkin, probably Britain’s greatest twentieth century poet, described the beginning of that war, and of the losses to come. It ends this way:
“Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.”
You can read how Britain’s dead of the Great War were commemorated in a fascinating – and terribly moving – account here. It culminated with the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The idea of commemorating the lost dead had come to a clergyman serving on the Western Front:
I came back from the line at dusk. We had just laid to rest the mortal remains of a comrade. I went to a billet in front of Erkingham, near Armentieres. At the back of the billet was a small garden, and in the garden only six paces from the house, there was a grave. At the head of the grave there stood a rough cross of white wood. On the cross was written in deep black-pencilled letters, “An Unknown British Soldier” and in brackets beneath, “of the Black Watch”. It was dusk and no one was near, except some officers in the billet playing cards. I remember how still it was. Even the guns seemed to be resting. How that grave caused me to think. Later on I nearly wrote to Sir Douglas Haig to ask if the body of an “unknown” comrade might be sent home…
The Daily Mail (November 11th,1920) described the journey of the train carrying the body:
The train thundered through the dark, wet, moonless night. At the platforms by which it rushed could be seen groups of women watching and silent, many dressed in deep mourning. Many an upper window was open and against the golden square of light was silhouetted clear cut and black the head and shoulders of some faithful watcher. …. In the London suburbs there were scores of homes with back doors flung wide, light flooding out and in the garden figures of men women and children gazing at the great lighted train rushing past.
It’s estimated that one and a quarter million people visited the grave in the week before it was closed: In its issue of November 12th, 1920 the Daily Telegraph told of how “one policeman spoke of old women who had come from remote country villages to pay homage to the dead. “One old lady came from the far north of Scotland. She carried a bunch of withered flowers, and told me with tears in her eyes that the flowers came from a little garden which her boy had planted when he was only six.”