Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembrance Day

"When you go home, tell them of us, and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.

We went to the park on Sunday for the British Remembrance sunday service at the war memorial there. There's a tiny cemetry with 46 graves in it, commemorating the Commonwealth soldiers who died in Albania during the 2nd World War.

We had been told it was a 'smart' occasion and everybody dressed up. I guess it was the British abroad wanting to 'do it properly', although actually it's usually quite smart in the U.K. I seem to remember too.

So the day started with everyone else eating breakfast & me at the sewing machine replacing the elastic in my daughter's tights, which she insisted on wearing, despite it being a warmish, sunny day. Her 'smart' involved a blue summer dress with white flowers, a red, white & blue stripey cardigan (patriotic at least), spotted hairband and pink & red stripey tights. I didn't have time or energy to argue, though on occasions like this I do sometimes want to pin a sartorial disclaimer to my daughter's back. My son rummaged around in his wardrobe and came up with a check shirt, a tie on elastic I had bought for the fancy dress box, multi coloured striped socks, and shorts. He hasn't moved into trousers yet this Autumn, and he was making no exceptions.

Still, I was touched that they wanted to make the effort, even if it was their interpretation of 'smart'. My husband put on a suit, but then announced he couldn't bike in a suit (I was expecting to, in skirt and heels), so we had to walk. Fortunately in Albania, as in many countries, punctuality has a loose interpretation, so we arrived at 10.32, & the 10.30 service started at 10.45. We were told it couldn't start till all the local dignitaries had arrived; the chief of the army, the deputy prime minister, & also the British Military attache & the British ambassador.

My husband then started analysing the military personnel's interpretation of 'smart' and commented on the uniformed officers who were lounging on benches smoking, with jackets unbuttoned. The chief of the army, who laid a wreath during the service, also went up with jacket unbuttoned. I didn't know this was a faux pas, but hubby explained that in the British army you are not allowed to only wear part of your uniform or to wear it at all incorrectly or sloppily. He also pointed out all the unpolished shoes.

These weren't British army representatives I should add. You can't deny when it comes to uniforms and ceremonies the British military certainly know how to do them with style. I always 'forget' that when I 1st met my husband he had just left Sandhurst, or rather resigned his commission, after completing the course (with flying colours), but before passing out. Cheaper that way.... So he comes out with all these bits of information on such occasions, momentarily surprising me until I remember. It seems such a long time ago, and a life I wasn't part of at all. He also told me as a boy he used to play the Last Post at the Remembrance Sunday service in his village. I like discovering things I didn't know about him, 17 years into our marriage.

Still the Albanian army made up for it with their brass band, who were very good. And clearly they spent more time polishing their musical instruments than their shoes....There was a sizeable crowd there. The service was, as always for me, very moving. It was also strangely comforting to be flooded with the familiarity of this British occasion, the familiar resonance of the words & liturgical responses taking place under a warm, Autumnal Albanian sky. (that last factor was the unfamiliar part, standing outside in November & not feeling cold).

"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"

The minister who spoke told the stories of 3 of the soldiers who died and commented on the values of duty, service and self-sacrifice they represented. I am always jolted by the dissonance with today's "me, me , me, I'm worth it, self-gratifying culture" They've become almost alien concepts. I often wonder what the war veterans make of today's culture & attitudes.

You rarely hear mention of such things today except in relation to admired 'oddities' like Mother Theresa or Mandela perhaps, and of course, still amongst the military in our country and others. There are still those who show bravery, self sacrifice, and service to their country, though I often think it must be so much harder in, say Iraq, where they must wonder what it is they are fighting & dying for.

It's hard to believe that even veterans of the 2nd World War are few & far between, being in their 80s & 90's now, and that we are about to lose that element of living history. That's why I think these Remembrance Day & others like it, are so important to keep the memory alive. To remind us of what was sacrificed to secure freedom but also to honour those who believed in such 'old fashioned' concepts of self-sacrifice & service.

At the end an old boy, with an extremely weathered, age-spotted face and rheumy eyes, went up to the British military attache and began sharing his story, talking away fervently in Albanian, leaving the attache rather at sea. A friend of mine stepped forward and offered to translate. With trembling hands, this man took took 4 yellowed photos from a much folded envelope in his jacket pocket to show the British representative. I didn't catch it all, but you could see how he pressed on, needing to share his story, still fresh after 60 yrs, holding the attache's arm as he poured out the details of his part, in his corner of war torn Europe, during Mussolini's invasion of Albania..

At the end of the service we were told anyone who had brought wreaths or flowers could lay them at the war memorial. Our son tugged my sleeve & asked if he could lay his poppy. I explained that people didn't usually lay a single poppy, they were to wear; but he said

'I want to lay something on my great grandfather's grave and it's all I have'.

So he did.

We explained that it was only a memorial to those who died in Albania but that, as it was a World War, soldiers died all over the world, and that his great grandfather was 'missing, presumed killed'' in the defence of Rangoon in Burma in 1942. Our 8 y-o said he wished his grave had been here in Albania so that he could lay his poppy on his grave. We told him his great grandfather's name is on a memorial in Burma "in Asia, 'near' where we used to live" and that there is no known grave.

Here is a picture of my father-in-law with his parents in Burma. His father, Duncan's, last letter was written on March 4th 1942, presumed killed a few days later. His mother escaped with my father-in-law (aged 2 and 5 mths) and his younger sister (aged 6 mths), to Chittagong and then by train to Calcutta, almost immediately. They stayed in India in the hills at Ranikhet trying to learn more about Duncan. They finally heard in August 1942 that he was missing, presumed killed. This status never changed, and so they sailed on the 'City of Calcutta' from Bombay in September 1942, an 11 wk voyage to Liverpool docks.

Their mother had sewn their ration books & documents into the children's coats in case they were separated or anything happened to her. Both the ship ahead and the ship behind in their convoy were torpoedoed by U-boats and sank. A near miss, which, had it happened, would have meant my father-in-law never grew up to marry, or have a son, my husband. Brings it a lot closer to home when one thinks like this.

I was proud of our 8 y-o for wanting to participate and understand. It is still part of my husband's family's living history; our son's grandfather rendered fatherless by the war. Something an 8 yr old could understand . It must have always made it particularly poignant for my father-in-law, who was a minister in the Church of England for 37 yrs, such that, every Remembrance Sunday service that he took, he was remembering a personal tragedy & childhood directly affected by the war.

I asked my father-in-law if he has any memories of his father. He has one distant memory of his father's tent flap, flapping in his face, when his dad was there, a presence, but no actual memory of him, which saddens him, not only for the void that inevitably leaves, but also because he was, he said, by all accounts, 'a lovely man'.

There, at least, is a genetic legacy his father has passed on to three generations of men; my father-in-law, and my husband, & God-willing, my son, will grow up to be known and appreciated, as a lovely man, too.

8 comments:

neal said...

The unique rituals of commemoration, such as the two-minute silence on remembrance day, were developed specifically in response to the war. In fact, Holocaust memory is performed throughout Israel on a number of different levels on holocaust remembrance day.

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Paradise Lost In Translation said...

Yes, I hope you didn't think I was suggesting it was a British ritual only, simply that the one we went to was a British occasion, and the Memorial in Tirana is only to 2nd WW victims in Albania. In Britain we commemorate those who died in both world wars specifically, but also in conflicts since then. As I said in my post I think the act of remembering is an important part of any society which has suffered serious conflict,to remind us of the sacrifices made, the price paid, and the horrors of war.

The Dotterel said...

What a wonderful post! There can't be many families in the UK not touched personally by one or both Great Wars, but each story adds a new dimension. Thanks for sharing yours.

Potty Mummy said...

You're right; it throws our culture into sharp relief. I'm hoping this insance fascination with 'me me me' will sort itself out by the time my boys get older - but am not overly optimistic.

Iota said...

I think Remembrance services get more and more poignant the older you get. Perhaps it's to do with having children (perhaps particularly boys) of your own, and wondering what the future holds for them.

Footballers Knees said...

A poignant description of the same ceremony in a different place, to me it shows a common bond cross all sides. Thanks for sharing your fantastic post, it was very moving.

Millennium Housewife said...

A wonderful, thought provoking and emotional post. Thankyou.
Did you know that poppies are a symbol of the wars because they only grow on disturbed ground? Therefore they grew in abundance on the battlefields but not on the surrounding countryside. A testament to nature and it's ability to find a way of surviving and living despite what has come before. MH

Potty Mummy said...

Paradise, I don't know if you're intersted but I wondered if you would like to be part of the Best of British Carnival of Bloggers I'm hosting next week. You don't need an invitation (just in case anyone else is interested), just e-mail a link to your favourite post of the last 4 weeks to pottymummy@gmail.com and I'll be in touch.