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Wednesday, 5 November 2014

A Time to Remember

As many of us buy our poppies we will reflect on the monumental, tragic & heroic events of 100 years ago with both sadness and gentle pride.

WW1 was supposed to have been; 'The war to end all wars', but sadly that never became reality, and subsequent conflicts have continued to blight the world to this day.

Our servicemen have dutifully followed their orders to protect our country, regardless of whether in hindsight the political decisions were correct or not. Over the decades our armed forces have done their duty, and seeing the country wearing poppies in silent respect is simultaneously powerful and touching.

On a lighter note, it was only a few years ago that the troops came to the rescue of the 2012 London Olympics, by providing last minute security at numerous venues. They camped in the London car parks by night, and by day they made everyone who attended that magnificent national occasion feel totally secure and safe.  To any visitor there was a smile, together with an ordered efficiency to admire and be proud of. 

Tower of London Poppies
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Last week we wanted to show our respect and gratitude to all that have served, past and present, so we travelled to the Tower of London to see the major art installation; 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red'. Ten of thousand's of other people had shared the same idea as the crowds to view the 888,246 ceramic poppies were equally as crushing as impressive. The unique display itself is magnificent, thought-provoking and moving.

The spectacular display of poppies are free for all to see and can be viewed from all sides of the Tower of London. Created by ceramic artist, Paul Cummins, the poppies fill the entire moat, with each poppy representing a British or Commonwealth military fatality during the first world war. Each poppy has already been pre-sold for £25, which just goes to show how much people want to share in this historic occasion.

The Poppy Appeal organised by the Royal British Legion has not lost support over the years, indeed it is evident that support and respect for our armed forces is stronger than ever.

Last month on a trip to Belgium, we visited two significant landmarks of WW1 & WW2.

Dunkirk Memorial
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Our first visit was to The Dunkirk Memorial which stands at the entrance to the British War Graves Section of Dunkirk Town Cemetery. Not the easiest to find, nor the largest wartime cemetery we have visited, but certainly worth taking the time to find.

You are greeted by ten large columns bearing names of 4,500 troops who died or were captured during World War II and who have no known grave. This is followed by The Memorial featuring an engraved glass panel depicting the evacuation.

We were surprised to find the 460 graves of WW1 soldiers, alongside the 793 British Expeditionary Force soldiers who never made it home from the war campaigns of 1939-40.

Dunkirk was the scene of the historic Operation Dynamo campaign. This included the 'little ships', which consisted of 700 private boats that sailed from Ramsgate to Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June 1940. The operation rescued and evacuated more than 338,000 British and French soldiers cut off on the beaches from advancing German forces during World War 2.

Dunkirk had also played an important role as an allied base in World War I.

The other thing that struck us was the number of headstones that revealed different nationalities laying at rest. Soldiers from India, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Norway lay with their British comrades.

Memorial  Museum
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Our next stop was the 'Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917' in Zonnebeke, near Ypres. The museum focuses on the Battle of Passchendaele where almost half a million soldiers died, went missing or were seriously injured. Housed in a striking chateau, the museum features uniforms, weaponry, battlefield archaeology and exhibits detailing the contribution of soldiers from the various Commonwealth countries involved in the battle. 

The Australian section had a soundtrack of 'Waltzing Matilda' by Rolf Harris, I am guessing no-one has yet told them that this may no longer be appropriate.

Passchendaele Museum-Trenches
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Inside the museum is an ingenious reconstruction of haunting and realistic dug-outs and tunnels, built over a number floors this creates a sense of what life would have been like for soldiers working and living during battle. You then seamlessly wend your way outside and through a large warren of replica British & German trenches. 

This visit to Passchendaele was particularly poignant, as my own grandfather fought and won the Military Medal on the surrounding battlefields whilst serving with The Rifle Brigade. (Now The Green Jackets.)

Photo by: AP Photo/Virginia Mayo
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Nearby is Tyne Cot Military Cemetery, the largest British and Commonwealth cemetery in the world. As we arrived dozens of volunteers were filling paper bags with sand and placing a tea light candle inside. These in turn were been laid in front of every single one of the c12,000 gravestones. We were to discover that this was in preparation for 'Light Front', where several WWI battle sites and a human chain of 8,400 torch-bearers were to light up The Western Front that evening to commemorate 100 years since the start of the First World War.

Tyne Cot Cemetery
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Tyne Cot Military Cemetery is built around three pill-boxes with the Cross of Sacrifice placed on the original large pill-box. These pill-boxes changed hands a number of times over the war, and finally became a British field casualty centre.

There are now 11,956 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried in the cemetery alongside 4 German soldiers.

Every visit to a war-time cemetery is a powerful and emotional experience. It is impossible not to reflect on why the men are there and the enormous waste and pain inflicted on so many families.

The whole experience hardens my view the every child should learn about WW1 & WW2 at school, and preferably also be taken to see the historic sights of France and Belgium. Medieval history may be interesting, but surely it is recent history they must know first, it teaches much and can't fail to affect the soul.

Finally, Boris Johnson...

I know.., he is a 'marmite politician' for people. Whether you see him as a insightful, highly educated, skilled, straight-talking politician with an ability to comprehend and deal with real issues, or blustering philanderer with a track record of misdemeanour's and mishaps which would have destroyed any normal politician does not matter. Whatever your views on the man, his new book 'The Churchill Factor' is worth a read.

Boris describes his book by saying; ‘I want to try to convey some of Churchill’s genius to a new generation, not through a simple retelling of his life: that has been done many times, and by scholars far greater than I will ever be. I propose to tell the story of the Churchill Factor, how his character made a difference to events – and how it is still helping to shape our world today.’

Now a good way through the book, I have discovered much about Churchill the man I never knew before despite copious reading about him.

A complex and flawed man, he was at the same time filled with compassion which was ably demonstrated in his relationship with his nanny, and how he ensured her well-being in later life.

Boris explains how and why prior to 1904 many felt the Nazis were less of a threat than the Bolsheviks, and he describes the fascinating and momentous day in 1940 when Churchill used all of his political skill to manoeuvre the members of the war cabinet who were in favour of negotiating with Hitler, to unanimously make a declaration to fight on. Throughout the book the stories keep coming.

This book gives a different aspect on Winston Churchill as a man and is a must read for anyone the least bit interested in the greatest British war leader or the lesser know tales from WW2.

War Memorials in Milford on Sea

Keyhaven War Memorial
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Keyhaven has a traditional War Memorial, but the village of Milford on Sea took a different route by building the War Memorial Hospital. The hospital still stands today and thankfully it has been saved on a number of occasions in part due to its war memorial status. 

Milford on Sea War Memorial
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What people may be less aware of is that a wooden war memorial once hung on the side of what was the village bakers. (Now where Lynk Photography Studios are and opposite the Red Lion.) This memorial was moved and today can be found inside of the War Memorial Hospital.

All Saints' Church War Memorial
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WW1 War Memorial
in Hospital
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All Saints' Church also contains a stone war memorial. The War Memorial Chapel was established in 1917 in the South Chapel but was transferred to the North Chapel in the 2008. 

Our current Parish Council is currently evaluating another war memorial for Milford on Sea. This would not stand on the village green, but one proposal is for it to be in the front of the hospital grounds.  We understand that the NHS are not to keen on the idea, but hopefully this can be resolved. A number of residents have already pledged donations towards the cost involved in building a new memorial.

Personally, I hope that a new war memorial is built by this current generation to show our own respect for the many who gave so much.

A Family Story for Remembrance Day: please click here.

Tower of London Remembers
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917

Tyne Cot Military Cemetery
click here

The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson

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