On Sunday, I had the honour to attend Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph in London. We’d planned to get there quite early, but managed it by about 9:00 in the morning. One of the entrances was directly across the street from our hotel, which normally is about a three minute walk from the Cenotaph. The queue, while longish, was still not stupid.
By the time we got through the first level of security (two police officers ensuring we had plastic bags for any metal we might be carrying through security) however, it was pretty long. At security, my bags were checked, including my camera bag, and held in trays until we’d passed through the machine. Usually, I set those off. That day, for once, I didn’t.
By the time we got to the spot we’d scoped out on Saturday, there were a fair number of people around the Cenotaph itself. Still, we had a good spot, directly opposite the women’s WWII memorial where there was space for us to sit on a wall should our legs get too tired from standing. For me, that’s an actual concern as, while I am quite fit, I do live with inflammatory arthritis and standing for a length of time can be difficult.
Cenotaph, by the way, is Greek from ‘kenos’ (empty) and ‘taphos’ (tomb). London’s is situated on Whitehall, directly in front of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The BBC had set up by the women’s memorial, so there was a fair bit going on there. My sweetheart and I had, as usual, struck up conversations with those around us. One chap had served in Northern Ireland in 1974. We were able to introduce him to a fellow on our other side who had served there during four tours between 1970 and 1974. Nobody was able to recognise the uniform and peak cap being worn by the female officer in the shot below. We all commented that she looked like a German officer from the war!
It took me a fair bit of searching to figure out her rank, but finally, I was able to identify her peak cap as that of a British Army Staff Officer. The gold on the brim denotes her as either a Colonel or Brigadier.
It had called for a fair bit of rain, so we’d brought our umbrellas. Good thing, because although the pavement was wet from rain when we arrived, not a drop fell on us all day and the sun came out. Like a miracle, it stayed. We figured that it was bringing our umbrellas that did it. Saturday, we hadn’t brought them as we wandered and it poured at one point!
Slowly, the crowd began to thicken. As it did, a low rumble began, as people talked quietly, waiting for 11:00 and the ceremonies. I sat on my wall, taking it all in while the stone beneath me slowly warmed. By 10:30, there was only a narrow path between the press barriers and the crowd.
At 10:50, the officials began to arrive. And the crowd began to grow further.
And then, it was 11:00. We all slid down from our spots on the wall to stand in respect. The cannon fired behind us as Big Ben peeled from Westminster. But for the sound of the bell and the wind in the trees, there was dead silence. I closed my eyes in the warm sun and felt Big Ben’s ring ripple down Whitehall, passing over us and through us as if we were made of light. The trees whooshed and one or two birds called. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month … 100 years to the moment after Armistice, when the war to end all wars finally ceased.
The last deaths 100 years ago were:
- Private George Edwin Ellison of the British Army, killed during a patrol near Mons, Belgium, at 9:30 in the morning, an hour and a half before the end;
- Augustin-Joseph Victorin Trébuchon, a messenger with the French Army was killed at the Ardennes at 10:45 that morning, carrying a message telling the French troops to muster for food at 11:30;
- Private George Lawrence Price of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, shot by a German sniper at 10:58 and buried near Mons in Belgium; and
- Private Henry Gunther of the American Army, the last American, indeed the last man killed in the war at 10:59 as he inexplicably, knowing that the end of the war was moments away, charged a German machine gun nest.
German records do not name the last German soldier killed, but one source I found named a Lieutenant Tomas, who after 11:00, having vacated a house they had been using nearby (location not noted) approached some American soldiers to let them know the house was now available to them for billeting. According to the story, the Americans hadn’t heard that the war had ended and they killed him where he stood.
The hush was broken by cannon burst, signalling the end of the two minutes. The Last Post was played, hauntingly perfect.
Then the wreaths were laid; the Queen’s wreath was laid by Prince Charles while the Queen watched from her balcony. Next, and for the first time ever, the German President laid a wreath, at the foot of the Queen’s wreath. The Duke of Edinburgh’s wreath was laid to the right of the German wreath by his Equerry, as he was unable to attend and Prince Charles laid the Prince of Wales wreath to the left of the German wreath. After that, various politicians laid their wreaths, then the Commonwealth countries. The list is long and where we were, we couldn’t see any of this except on the big screen, but still, all remained silent around us.
The Lord Bishop of London, leading her first ever Remembrance Sunday service, offered prayer. And thousands of hushed voices said ‘Amen’. Then, the voices were raised in hymn, hesitantly at first, but stronger as it went on. The Lord Bishop offered another prayer; again, thousands of voices whispered ‘Amen’. The Lord’s Prayer was next. I cannot express how overwhelming it was to be in the middle of thousands of people uttering as a chorus, perfectly in unison, the same words I learned as a girl in school, “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen”
The Lord Bishop gave a Blessing and then the Rouse.
Finally, we sang ‘God Save the Queen’. For the first time in my life, I was almost unable to sing for tears. My throat closed with emotion at every word, but sing it I did, with thousands and thousands of other people.
Slowly talking began again, whispers at first, respectful, thoughtful, quiet. As if nobody wanted that moment to end.
Across from us, at the Women of WWII Memorial, the BBC began talking to a veteran who was about to be interviewed.
Then the regiments of veterans, there to lay wreaths began to arrive. We were first aware because applause began to float toward us from Trafalgar.
Whitehall, empty until after the service, begins to fill as more veterans and regiments march in.
The Kings Own Scottish Borders veterans arrived.
Two unexpected members of the Royal Air Force Association caught my eye. They were clearly WWII veterans, from the medals they wore, but they were women, so I was curious.
The medals on the beautiful woman in burgundy in the above gallery are:
- The France and Germany Star – awarded for operational service in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands or Germany between 6 June 1944 and 8 May 1945.
- The Defence Medal – awarded for non-operational service such as those service personnel working in headquarters, on training bases and airfields and members of the Home Guard. The medal is also awarded for non-operational service overseas for example in India or South Africa.
- The War Medal – awarded to all full time personnel of the armed forces wherever they were serving. The medal was granted in addition to campaign stars and the Defence Medal.
Whitehall continued to fill with members of the Salvation Army, members of the Royal Air Force, the Royal Military Police in their orange berets, and so many others that I cannot identify. The Canadian Veteran Association in the UK was also represented to place a wreath, but I couldn’t find them in the crush!
It was coming onto 12:45 and we had to have lunch before checking out of our hotel at 2:00, so we decided to leave, but not before I took another few shots.
It was an incredibly moving day and I have so many other images to share from this weekend of Remembrance. This is enough for now. It is enough to remember by and so very worth remembering.
In this we have caught the torch and we held it high in their honour. One hundred years to the day after the guns ceased firing in the war to end all wars.