Over six million men from Great Britain served during the First World War. When ‘the war to end wars’ was finally over, more than 1.75 million of the surviving troops returned home with a disability, half of them permanently disabled. The economy was in free-fall, and by 1921 there were two million unemployed, many of them men who had so recently served their country on bloody battlefields far from home. Life was hard for the men, and for families whose loved ones had come back from the war changed, or had not come back at all. Widows and orphans, parents who lost the sons who may have been the bread-winner of the family, wives and children of the disabled who could no longer provide for them. The physical conflict was over, but its legacy endured.
In an effort to help those suffering hardship, four national organisations which had been created at the end of the war joined together to create The British Legion on 15th May 1921. These groups were
The Comrades of The Great War
The British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers
The National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers
The Officers’ Association
One of the founders of the British Legion was Field Marshal Haig who had commanded the British forces at Passchendaele and the Battle of the Somme and who was President of the British Legion until his death in 1928. The British Legion was granted a Royal Charter in 1925, becoming the Royal British Legion, and links with the Royal family of the United Kingdom continue today.
The Royal British Legion is a charitable organisation which provides financial, social and emotional support to former and current members of the British Armed Forces, as well as their families and dependants. Every year they make around 300,000 friendship and welfare visits and help tens of thousands with their War Disablement Pension cases. Their work includes everything from research into issues affecting the health of servicemen and women (e.g., Gulf War Syndrome) to support for service personnel as they move from the military to civilian life. The support given by the Royal British Legion is costly, and their main fund-raising comes from the sale of artificial poppies in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday (the closest Sunday to 11th November, recognising the day on which the First World War ended).
The very first Poppy Appeal took place in 1921, with the poppies selling-out almost over-night and raising over £106,000, which was a large sum 100 years ago. The money raised was used to help veterans of the First World War with housing and employment. No-one in the United Kingdom today could fail to recognise the distinctive poppy, but how many of us know its history?
During the First World War much of the fighting was trench warfare in Western Europe with troops bogged down in mud and filth, constantly bombarded by the enemy. The landscape, once woodland and farmer’s fields, became a desolate landscape of mud and craters where little grew. Yet amongst the destruction, in the miles of mud, one thing seemed to thrive – Flanders poppies. The bright red of their petals seemed somehow symbolic of the blood which had been shed, and the sight of these flowers prompted Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, to write his now famous poem ‘In Flanders’s Fields’ after learning of the death of a friend. This poem, in turn, inspired an American academic, Moina Michael, to campaign for the poppy to be used as a symbol of remembrance in the US, the UK, Canada and Australia.
In 1921, Frenchwoman Anna Guerin persuaded Earl Haig to adopt the poppy as a symbol, and nine million were sold that first year. The sale was such a resounding success that a factory was set up to produce the poppies in future years. Now around 40 million are sold by volunteers every year in the UK. There is a separate factory in Scotland which produces a slightly different version of the poppy there (with four petals and no leaves).
In the past everyone would stop what they were doing at 11am on the 11th of November to observe one minute of silence in remembrance of those who had died during the war. The modern world does not always allow people this time of reflection, but in the UK the closest Sunday to 11th November is always Remembrance Sunday, where parades and services are held. On the preceding Saturday night, the Royal British Legion holds a ‘Festival Of Remembrance’ in the Royal Albert Hall, London. This Festival is always attended by senior members of the British royal family, and involves a parade of servicemen and women, representatives of youth organisation and uniformed civilian services, and culminates in an act of remembrance in which the petals of thousands of poppies fall on the assembly below.
The Royal British Legion began in the years after the end of ‘the war to end all wars’ and continues to work for the well-being of those who have served in the numerous wars which have happened since. One hundred years after its founding the Royal British Legion is needed now just as much as it ever was then.
You can find out more about the work of the Royal British Legion over the last 100 years here
On 11th November 1920 simultaneous acts of interment took place at Westminster Abbey in London and at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. At each location the remains of an unknown soldier who had died in the Great War were laid to rest, a representative and symbol for all those whose loved ones had no known grave. The burials of these British and French soldiers are the first examples of a Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier.
It was in 1916 that army chaplain Reverend David Railton saw a rough wooden cross marking a grave in a back garden at Armentières, on the Western Front, in pencil on the cross were the words ’An Unknown British Soldier’. In 1920 Railton suggested to the Dean of Westminster that an unidentified British soldier should be buried ‘amongst the kings’ in Westminster Abbey to represent the hundreds of thousands of men from throughout the Empire who had died during the conflict. The Dean readily agreed and the idea was supported by David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister.
The remains of four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four of the battlefields, (the Aisne, the Somme, Arras, and Ypres), to be taken to a chapel near Arras where they were laid on stretchers covered by Union Flags. Brigadier General Wyatt, responsible for selecting the Unknown Warrior, did not know which battlefields they had come from and chose one of the bodies at random. The three remaining were taken away to be reburied whilst a service led by chaplains for the Church of England, Roman Catholic Church, and Non-Conformist churches was said for the fourth body which was placed in a plain coffin.
The next day (8th November 1920) the chosen soldier was taken to Boulogne where the French 8th Infantry Regiment kept an overnight vigil before the coffin was prepared for its return to England. The plain coffin was placed in a casket made from oak timbers from Hampton Court Palace; King George V had personally chosen a crusader sword from the royal collection to be fixed to the top of the casket along with an iron shield on which was engraved the words ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country’. The casket was covered with the flag that Rev. Railton had used as an altar cloth during the War (known as the Ypres or Padre’s Flag, which now hangs in St George’s Chapel).
Six black horses then drew the coffin on an open waggon through the city of Boulogne and down to the harbour. The mile-long procession, escorted by a division of French troops, was led by 1,000 local schoolchildren who marched solemnly as all the church bells tolled and trumpets sounded Aux Champs (the French equivelant of The Last Post). Marshal Foch saluted the coffin as it was carried aboard HMS Verdun which was escorted across the English Channel by six battleships. Its arrival in Dover on 10th November was marked by a 19-gun salute, an honour normally reserved for a Field Marshall.
From Dover the Unknown Warrior was taken by train to Victoria Station in London where he remained overnight before the casket was placed on a gun carriage drawn by black horses of the Royal Horse Artillery in the early morning of 11th November. Huge silent crowds lined the routed as the cortege made its way to Whitehall, the only sound another Field Marshal’s salute from guns in Hyde Park. A temporary Cenotaph had been the focus of commemorations the previous year, on 11th November 1919, and this had now been replaces with a permanent structure. The gun carriage carrying the Unknown Warrior halted at this new permanent memorial which was unveiled by King George V who placed a wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin, the accompanying card read ‘In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known; as dying, and behold they live. George R.I. November 11th 1920’. After laying his wreath the king then followed the casket on its final journey to Westminster Abbey, accompanied by other members of the Royal Family and minister of the government.
When the Unknown Warrior arrived at the Abbey 100 recipients of the Victoria Cross provided a Guard of Honour as he was carried to the West Nave. During the burial service the King dropped a handful of French soil onto the coffin as it was lowered into the grave and Reveille was sounded by trumpeters (the Last Post had already been sounded at the Cenotaph). The Padre’s Flag was laid over the grave. Guests of honour at the ceremony included royalty and statesmen, and more than a hundred women who had lost their husband and all of their sons during the four terrible years of conflict which had taken such a toll on Europe. They watched as the coffin was interred with soil from the major battlefields, and a guard of honour formed to flank the tomb as tens of thousands of mourners filed past in silence; for many this was the only place they would ever be able to visit as their own loved ones had ‘no known grave’ somewhere in northern Europe.
For the remainder of the day servicemen kept watch at each corner of the grave while thousands of mourners filed past. When night fell and the Abbey was closed the guard continued to stand, arms reversed, in the light of four flickering candles to keep watch through the night.
Special permission had been given to make a recording of the service but very little of it was of good enough quality to be included on a record which became the first electrical recording ever to be sold to the public.
On 18th November the grave was filled with 100 sandbags of earth from the battlefields; a temporary stone was placed over it with the inscription
‘A BRITISH WARRIOR WHO FELL IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918 FOR KING AND COUNTRY. GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS.’
The Tomb Of The Unknown Warrior became a focus for the grieving of a nation, and also an aid to healing for all those who had no known grave for their loved one – who was to say that he did not lie here in Westminster Abbey? On 17th October 1921 the Unknown Warrior was awarded the United State’s highest award for valour, the Medal of Honour, by General Pershing; the medal still hangs on a pillar close to the tomb.
The Tomb is now covered with a black marble stone which was unveiled during a special service on 11th November 1921 at the same time that the Padre’s Flag was dedicated, this, too, is still on display in Westminster Abbey.
When Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the future King George VI in 1923 she laid her bouquet at the Tomb in memory of her brother Fergus, who died in 1915 during the Battle of Loos and is listed amongst the missing on the memorial there. Ever since that day the bouquets of all Royal brides who have married in Westminster Abbey have been laid on the Tomb. Before she died the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, then Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, asked for her wreath to be laid on the Tomb Of The Unknown Warrior, this act of remembrance was carried out by Queen Elizabeth II on the day after her mother’s funeral.
The name of the serviceman intered in the Tomb is truly unknown, he could be a member of any of the three services – Army, Navy, or Air Force – and could have been from the British Isles or one of the Dominions or Colonies which, at that time made up the British Empire. As such he represents all those who died and have no known grave or memorial. In memory of the sacrifice made by so many the heads of state from over 70 countries have laid wreaths in memory of the Unknown Warrior buried in Westminster Abbey.
The Tomb Of The Unknown Warrior is the only tombstone in Westminster Abbey which people are forbidden to walk on. The words engraved on it say
Beneath this stone rests the body Of a British warrior Unknown by name or rank Brought from France to lie among The most illustrious of the land And buried here on Armistice Day 11 Nov: 1920, in the presence of His Majesty King George V His Ministers of State The Chiefs of his forces And a vast concourse of the nation
Thus are commemorated the many Multitudes who during the Great War of 1914 – 1918 gave the most that Man can give life itself For God For King and country For loved ones home and empire For the sacred cause of justice and The freedom of the world
They buried him among the kings because he Had done good toward God and toward His house
Around the main inscription are four New Testament quotations:
The Lord knoweth them that are his (2 Timothy 2:19) Unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live (2 Corinthians 6:9) Greater love hath no man than this (John 15:13) In Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22)
The artist Frank O. Salisbury attended the burial and made a sketch of the event which was attended by leading politicians, senior military figures and members of the Royal Family led by King George V. The painting which he developed from the sketch hangs in Committee Room 10 in the Houses of Parliament.
Most people are familiar with the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall which is the focus of Britain’s National Service of Remembrance every November and commemorates British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the two World Wars and later conflicts. The ceremony is televised and is attended by Prince Charles (representing the Queen), religious leaders, politicians, representatives of state and the armed and auxiliary forces, all of whom gather to pay their respects to those who gave their lives defending others. It is a well-known and well-loved ceremony, yet many people are unaware of the history of the Cenotaph and how it came to be where it is.
The word ‘Cenotaph’ comes from the Greek for ‘empty tomb’ and is used to describe a tomb or monument erected to honour a person or group of persons who are buried elsewhere, or who have no known grave.
The First World War saw casualties on an unprecedented scale (the British Empire alone lost more than 1 million military personnel). Although the fighting ceased on Armistice Day on 11th November 1918 the war did not formally end until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28th June 1919, and the British government decided to hold a victory parade of soldiers marching down Whitehall to celebrate this on 19th July 1919. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, decided that a temporary memorial for the troops to salute should be included as part of the parade and he approached Sir Edwin Lutyens to design it. (Lutyens was one of the most well-known architects of the time having designed much of New Delhi; he was also already involved in work with the Imperial War Graves Commission to create memorials in the cemeteries of the battlefields). Lutyens memorial for the Victory Parade was made of wood and plaster and completed in just two weeks.
The Saturday of the Victory Parade was a Bank Holiday and Public Holiday so that everyone could celebrate victory and remember the dead and wounded. The unveiling of the temporary Cenotaph took place on the previous evening and was a quiet, unofficial ceremony to which Lutyens was not invited. Thousands travelled to London overnight to see the Parade and experience the bands and performances in London’s central parks. In the morning King George V issued a message: ‘To these, the sick and wounded who cannot take part in the festival of victory, I send out greetings and bid them good cheer, assuring them that the wounds and scars so honourable in themselves, inspire in the hearts of their fellow countrymen the warmest feelings of gratitude and respect.’ During the Parade 15,000 soldiers and 1,500 officers marched past and saluted the Cenotaph, including General Pershing representing America, Marshal Foch representing France, with Field Marshal Haig and Admiral of the Fleet Beatty representing the British armed forces. The royal family also attended.
From the early days of the war, when casualty figures began to mount, it was decided that the fallen would be buried close to where they fell and the repatriation of the dead was forbidden. After the Victory Parade the temporary Cenotaph unexpectedly became a focus for those who had lost loved ones, a substitute grave for them to visit. For days after the Parade people came to lay wreaths and flowers at the foot of the memorial, an estimated 1.2 million visited during the first week alone.
Four days after the Parade war veteran William Ormsby-Gore, MP for Stafford, suggested in Parliament that a permanent Cenotaph should replace the temporary one; the idea was supported by many other MP’s and so was put to the Cabinet. The following week the idea was taken up by The Times newspaper as hundreds of letters came flooding in in support of a permanent memorial. The Cabinet agreed on 30th July that Lutyens should create a permanent memorial in Whitehall.
Lutyens made a few minor changes to his design – replacing real wreaths with stone sculptures, and using the subtle curves known as entasis (he had already incorporated this into his design for the Stone of Remembrance to be used in the war cemeteries). Lutyens wanted to replace the flags with sculptures because he thought that the real ones would soon look untidy, but this idea was rejected and real flags are still used today. Construction of the permanent Cenotaph began in May 1920. The design is a rectangular column made of Portland stone with an empty tomb surmounted by a wreath at its summit. The design is rather plain with the intention of focussing the eye and the thought on the tomb and a number of carved wreaths; the only words engraved are The Glorious Dead and the dates of the war. Lutyens Cenotaph is 35 feet (11 m) high and weighs 120 tonnes (120,00 kg.)
The new monument was unveiled on November 11th 1920 (this time Lutyens was present). The coffin of the Unknown Warrior was taken to his tomb in Westminster Abbey that morning on a route which took it past the Cenotaph. King George V laid a wreath on the coffin before unveiling the Cenotaph, then he acted as chief mourner and followed the gun-carriage of the Unknown Warrior to the Abbey. So many people visited the Cenotaph in the following days that Whitehall was closed to traffic; within a week the flowers lay 10 feet deep and more than 1.25 million people are thought to have paid their respects.
The Remembrance Service of today has changed little since it was first introduced in 1921, with hymns, prayers, and a two minute silence observed before the laying of official wreaths on the steps of The Cenotaph. The ceremony ends with a march past of war veterans who salute the monument in a poignant gesture of respect for their fallen comrades.
Lutyens’ cenotaph design has been reproduced in other parts of the UK as well as in other countries allied to Britain, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Although he had originally wanted the flags to be carved in stone this was overruled and real flags are still used. Immediately after the unveiling of the Cenotaph the flags on display were a Union Flag, a White Ensign and a Red Ensign on one side, with a Union Flag, a White Ensign, and a Blue Ensign on the other side. On 1 April 1943, an RAF Ensign was substituted for the White Ensign on the west side. The flags which are now displayed (since 2007) represent the Royal Navy, the British Army, the Royal Air Force and the Merchant Navy. The Blue Ensign represents the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and other government services. In the early days the flags were changed every six to eight weeks so that they could be cleaned, and the flags would be used for 15 months before being replaced. By 1939 the flags needed to be cleaned every six weeks and were washed just twice before being replaced. When the flags are finally removed they are sent to the Imperial War Museum which gives them to accredited organisations.
As we commemorate the ending of the First World War it is fitting that we remember all those who paid the ultimate price. We are all aware of cemeteries around the world which contain the graves of soldiers who died far from home, and if you have ever visited one you will have been impressed by the standard of care which is taken to keep these places of remembrance at their best. This work is carried out by The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) which was the brainchild of Sir Fabian Ware. The CWGC builds and maintains cemeteries and memorials in more than 150 countries and territories and also creates and preserves archives with extensive records of the fallen. Ware was 45 when war broke out and so too old to fight but he was determined to play his part so became the commander of a mobile unit in the British Red Cross. Arriving in France in 1914 he was appalled and saddened at the huge loss of life he saw, and also by the fact that there was no official way of documenting and recording the graves. Determined that none of the fallen would be forgotten he organised for his unit to begin recording and caring for all the graves they could find. Municipal cemeteries were soon full and Ware negotiated for France to grant land in perpetuity to Britain which would become responsible for the management and maintenance of the graves there. People heard about Ware’s work and he began to get letters from people asking for photographs of the graves of their loved ones. By 1917 17,000 photos had been sent. At the same time graves were being recorded in Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia as well as France.
Many people were impressed with this work which was officially recognised by the War Office when the unit was incorporated into the British Army in 1915 and became known as the Graves Registration Commission. Ware wanted his Commission to show the same Imperial cooperation that could be seen in the armed forces so he approached the Imperial War Conference for their help and advice. With the support of the Prince of Wales the Imperial War Graves Commission was founded by Royal Charter on 21st May 1917; Ware was Vice-Chairman and the Prince of Wales was the first President.
When the war ended in November 1918 land was found for the new cemeteries and memorials and the terrible task of recovering and re-interring the bodies of the dead began. Conscripted soldiers undertook this work which must have been very difficult and resulted in emotional and mental problems for many as they recovered thousands of bodies, some four or more years old. Using Ware’s existing records as a foundation around 587,000 graves had been identified by the end of 1918, and the register of those having no known grave had reached 559,000. It was decided that the bodies should not be repatriated but lie beside their brothers in arms, it was also decided that all of the graves would be identical so that men of all ranks would be treated equally.
The Commission were determined that the work they had undertaken would be carried out to the highest of standards and so they employed three of the most important architects of the time – Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield – to design and build the memorials and cemeteries; Rudyard Kipling (who lost his son in the war) was asked to help with the inscriptions. The garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll, helped the architects to created a walled cemetery with a garden. This became the template for all other cemeteries which were ready to receive the dead by 1921, and between 1920 and 1923 4,000 headstones were being shipped to France every week. By 1927 the majority of the work had been completed with over 500 cemeteries built and over 400,000 headstones in place; in addition 1,000 ‘Crosses of Sacrifice’ designed by Blomfield and 400 ‘Stones of Remembrance’ designed by Lutyens were also in place.
When the war ended the British Army was responsible for the exhumation of remains, by September 1921 the 12-man teams had exhumed and reburied 204,695 bodies. No more searches were conducted after that, but bodies continued to be discovered (in the following 3 years alone the remains of another 38,000 soldiers were found). In the mid-1920’s 20 to 30 bodies were being discovered every week, and even today around 30 bodies are found every year.
Some of the latest bodies of First World War soldiers to be recovered include:
In 2006 eight bodies of Canadian soldiers from the 78th Battalion (Winnipeg Grenadiers), CEF were discovered in a backyard in Hallu, France.
The remains of four British soldiers discovered by a French farmer clearing land with a metal detector in 2009 were re-interred at H.A.C. Cemetery near Arras, France in April 2013.
In March 2014, the remains of 20 Commonwealth and 30 German soldiers were discovered at Vendin-le-Vieil, France. The Commonwealth soldiers were reburied at Loos British Cemetery.
When the remains of a Commonwealth soldier from the First or Second World War are discovered the Commission is notified, and a burial officer collects any artefacts found with the body which might help to identify the individual. The details of the find are then registered and archived at the Commission’s headquarters.
All of the cemeteries created and cared for by the Commission have a similar design. They are usually enclosed by a low hedge or wall with a wrought-iron entrance gate. Inside all but the very smallest of the cemeteries you will find a plan of the site and register of all the burials there, this is kept in a metal cupboard which can be accessed by anyone searching for a particular soldier. The cemeteries are laid to grass with no pathways, and each headstone has flowers planted beside it (except in very dry countries). The flowers are often native species which closely resemble flowers of England. If there are a lot of cemeteries in an area (e.g. along the Western Front or in Gallipoli) a team of local gardeners will care for them, in large cemeteries there will be a dedicated staff whilst small ones may just have one gardener who works part-time.
If a cemetery has more than 40 graves it will also have a Cross Of Remembrance designed by Reginald Blomfield, which is a free-standing cross (usually carved from limestone) with a bronze medieval longsword embedded in its face. The cross is intended to represent the faith of the majority of the dead whilst the sword is an expression of the Christian concept of self-sacrifice. The larger cemeteries (those with more than 1,000 burials) also have a Stone of Remembrance designed by Edwin Lutyens; this stone is inscribed with the words ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’. Unlike the Cross Of Remembrance, the Stone deliberately avoids reference to any particular religion.
Every grave is marked with a headstone which contains the national emblem or regimental badge, rank, name, unit, date of death and age of each casualty carved above an appropriate religious symbol, sometimes it will also have a more personal dedication chosen by relatives. If the cemetery is in an area which may be at risk of earthquakes a memorial plaque is placed at ground level rather than using a headstone which might fall. If the person who had died had been awarded wither the Victoria Cross or the George Cross and image of this will also be engraved on the headstone. There are, sadly, many graves where the casualty has not been able to be identified, in such cases the words ‘A Soldier of the Great War known unto God’ will be used in place of a name.
Unfortunately, the First World War did not prove to be ‘the war to end all wars’ and the Commission was called upon to continue its work during the Second World War and other conflicts which have followed. Winston Churchill recognised that civilians were paying an increasingly heavy price in war and so the Commission was given the task of recording the names of civilians who had died due to enemy action during the Second World War. The Civilian War Dead Roll of Honour is housed in Saint George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey.
In 1960 the name of the Imperial War Graves Commission was changed to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The work of remembrance continues; in 2008 mass graves were discovered on the edge of Pheasant Wood near Fromelles. Two-hundred and fifty British and Australian bodies were recovered and re-interred in a new cemetery, the first to be opened in more than fifty years.
Since its creation the CWGC has created 2,500 war cemeteries, but there are many fallen soldiers who have no known grave – there were 315,000 in France and Belgium alone – and their names are written on permanent memorials. Reginald Blomfield designed the Menin Gate which was the first of the large memorials to be completed and was unveiled on 24th July 1927. Despite its size there was not enough space to list all of the names as had been planned and so Herbert Baker designed Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing which recorded a further 34,984 names. Other large memorial for those with no known grave are:
the Helles Memorial in Gallipoli
the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme
the Arras Memorial
Basra Memorial in Iraq
The Dominions and India also erected memorials on which they commemorated their missing:
the Neuve-Chapelle Memorial for the forces of India
the Vimy Memorial by Canada
the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial by Australia
the Delville Wood Memorial by South Africa
the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial by Newfoundland
So, as we commemorate the end of the First World War and all those who have given so much in service of their country let us take a few moments to pause and reflect on the sacrifices they have made.
The Soldier by Rupert Brooke 1887 – 1915
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
The most vivid, moving – and devastating – word-portrait of a World War One British commander ever written.
C.S. Forester’s 1936 masterpiece follows Lt General Herbert Curzon, who fumbled a fortuitous early step on the path to glory in the Boer War. 1914 finds him an honourable, decent, brave and wholly unimaginative colonel. Survival through the early slaughters in which so many fellow-officers perished then brings him rapid promotion. By 1916, he is a general in command of 100,000 British soldiers, whom he leads through the horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele, a position for which he is entirely unsuited and intellectually unprepared.
Wonderfully human with Forester’s droll relish for human folly on full display, this is the story of a man of his time who is anything but wicked, yet presides over appalling sacrifice and tragedy. In his awkwardness and his marriage to a Duke’s unlovely, unhappy daughter, Curzon embodies Forester’s full powers as a storyteller. His half-hero is patriotic, diligent, even courageous, driven by his sense of duty and refusal to yield to difficulties. But also powerfully damned is the same spirit which caused a hundred real-life British generals to serve as high priests at the bloodiest human sacrifice in the nation’s history. A masterful and insightful study about the perils of hubris and unquestioning duty in leadership, The General is a fable for our times.
The British generals who served during the First World War have a reputation for incompetence and a callous disregard for human life, yet until the late 1920’s they were recognised as heroes – 1 million people went to London to pay their respects at the funeral of General Haig in 1928. It was not until the late 1920’s that novels began to appear criticising the war and those who led it, and it was in this climate that C S Forester wrote ‘The General’ in an attempt to explain what made men launch such catastrophic attacks against the enemy time and time again.
This is a story of human nature rather than military strategy, revealing the thought processes and perceived obligations of an officer during the First World War with such clarity that it reads more like a biography than fiction. Mr Forester has written a well-researched revelation of life on the front line, getting to the heart of the conversations of soldiers and the planning of the disastrous attacks which killed so many. The development of tactics and arms from the end of the use of cavalry through the introduction of machine guns, reconnaissance planes, and tanks is shown through the perfectly normal feelings of scepticism which always accompany new ideas and inventions. ‘The General’, which takes Curzon from South Africa to northern Europe, gives the reader some understanding of how difficult it would have been for officers of the ‘old school’ who had last fought during the Boer War to face the nightmare of trench warfare which the author describes in word pictures which are all the more real for their simplicity.
The character of Curzon is rather awkward, socially limited and lacking in imagination, yet he is single-minded in his loyalty to his men and his desire to be the best officer possible. He is respected and admired by his men, a dedicated and hard-working professional, but his tragedy is that he is unable to grasp the changing nature of warfare and use it to his advantage even though he does take the unusual step of appointing civilian conscripts rather than the traditional officer class to carry out new roles in logistics, chemistry, train scheduling etc.
This novel criticises the lack of imagination in the planning of the war – if an attack fails then just do the same thing again but with more men and more guns. Curzon sees the tragic and appalling loss of life as indispensable to victory and so accepts them in a way which may seem callous to us but which is perhaps intended to show how each aspect of the General’s role was compartmentalised as he focused on final victory, he buries his reaction to the death of his men in order to carry out his duty and ‘finish the job’. The reader has to face the same dilemmas as the General himself – should Curzon have surrendered positions to save lives? Would defeat have been better?
The General shows that the perception of cowardly generals leading from behind the lines is unjust. In fact most generals visited the front lines regularly, for some it was almost every day, and more than 200 generals were killed, wounded or captured during the course of the war. A General serving during the First World War would have been considerably closer to the action than generals are today. (About 12% of ordinary soldiers in the British army were killed during World War 1 as opposed to 17% of its officers).
The General paints a portrait of a man who was not wicked or incompetent and who elicits some sympathy from the reader. It is not really possible to love Curzon, but he can be seen as a tragic figure who did the best he could for his country in a particular time and place. As we are currently commemorating the centenary of the ending of the First World War in November 1918 it is perhaps a fitting time to read this novel and reflect.
At 11am on 11th November we remember the ending of the First World War, and the men and women who lost their lives in other wars and other parts of the world. Much of our focus is often on Europe, and those who fought and died in other theatres of war can sometimes be forgotten or relegated to the sidelines. One such group are the men who fought and died in North Africa during the Second World War.
Mersa Matruh is an ancient fishing port dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. It was also the place where Anthony and Cleopatra would escape for seclusion – at the time it was a village of sponge fishermen where the two lovers would relax and swim naked together in the sea. Allied troops were stationed in Mersa Matruh during the First World War, and at the time of the Second World War it was at the end of a narrow-gauge railway from Alexandria and as such was an important supply post for the Allies. The Allied troops who fought in North Africa came from all around the world – from the United Kingdom to Australia, from India to New Zealand, and the British Eighth Army (including the famed Desert Rats) set out on some of their most important operations from Mersa Matruh. Mersa was also the site of a crushing Allied defeat by Rommel’s Afrika Corps in June 1942.
I would like to thank Ian from the Desert Rats website for allowing me to use the following poem as a tribute to all those who fought and died during the North African campaigns of World War 2.
THE GRAVES AT MERSA MATRUH.
How often do you folks at home
Think of sandy graves without a stone,
Where sleep our comrades brave and true,
Out in the desert at Mersa Matruh.
The raging sandstorms awake them not,
They’re cool below but above is hot
The trails of the desert are over them,
They fought and died like Englishmen.
Do you not feel pride in your heart
Where you think may be a friend took part
in the struggles for the empire, Britain and you,
And lay down their lives at Mersa Matruh.
On honoured scroll their names shall shine,
And will not dim through pass of time
In years to come we will remember them
As soldiers of the empire and British men.
Then forget them not you folks at home,
Those men who lie in the desert alone,
They died for their country, Britain and you
In the western desert of Mersa Matruh.
We have just marked Remembrance Day, honouring those in the armed forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. But we should never forget the civilians who gave their blood, sweat and tears during past wars. The people of Coventry loom large amongst those who should be remembered.
As darkness fell on 14th November 1940 the citizens of Coventry wrapped themselves against the biting cold. There was a full moon and the usual autumnal fog had not materialised, leaving clear skies dotted with bright twinkling stars. A beautiful evening. Until the bombs began to fall.
Even before the Second World War Coventry had been an important engineering and manufacturing city; with the outbreak of hostilities that role was massively increased as the factories played an important part in supplying the military in preparation for an expected German invasion. The civilians who worked in the factories lived close to their places of work, leaving them vulnerable if the factories were attacked. Yet despite the importance of its industry Coventry was poorly defended, with less than forty anti-aircraft guns and only about fifty barrage balloons.
It was early evening, 7.10pm, when the first sirens began to sound and the German Pathfinder planes began to drop parachute flares. The bright lights floating down were beautiful but with a deadly purpose – to mark the target for the wave after wave of bombers which were not far behind. The first bombers dropped their cargo of incendiary bombs, creating over 200 fires which lit the night sky, making any more flares unnecessary. In one long night 400 enemy planes attacked Coventry in four massive waves, flying east to west then making a return run west to east, trailing endless lines of bombs behind them. The fires were so fierce that they could be seen from 100 miles away. Guided by the destruction below them the enemy planes passed over again and again, dropping land mines and high explosives. In all 30,000 incendiaries and 500 tons of bombs and land mines were dropped, nearly 50,000 houses damaged and 20,000 rendered totally uninhabitable. Three quarters of the city’s industry was put out of action; telephone, water, electricity and gas supplies were all totally disrupted. The tram system was unusable and 156 out of 181 buses were out of action. During the attempts to bring the chaos under control 26 firemen were killed and over 200 injured; almost 1,000 civilians were seriously injured, more than 550 killed. Only one German bomber was shot down despite the thousands of anti-aircraft rounds which were fired. The raid on Coventry reached such a new, previously unimagined, level of destruction that Joseph Goebbels later used the term “coventriert” (“coventried”) when he described other mass raids which caused similar levels of destruction toenemy towns and cities.
Although the target of the attack on Coventry was the war industry, Hitler also wanted to try to break the moral of the British people. Very few of those on the ground were in the armed forces – mainly those who manned the ack ack guns and other air defences – the majority of people involved in the rescue operations during that night, and the days which followed, were members of the Home Guard and voluntary agencies. The victims overwhelmingly civilians. In my novel, ‘Heronfield’, I pay tribute to the civilians who were caught up in that terrible night of 14th November 1940; their courage and sacrifice, their endurance and strength should not be forgotten.
An introduction to the characters: Sarah Porter is an auxiliary nurse who is home on leave and staying with her mother, Alice. They share an Anderson shelter with their neighbours, the Cooks and the Normans. Sarah’s boyfriend, Joe, is a member of the Home Guard…
Joe met up with Bob Dean at seven o’clock. They made their way to the roof of the factory which was their spotting position for the night. Bob rubbed his hands together briskly.
“It’s going to be a cold one tonight.”
Joe nodded as he picked up the binoculars and slowly scanned the sky for enemy planes. “It’s just the sort of night when I’d prefer to be snuggled up close with a pretty girl to keep me warm!”
“And we all know which pretty girl that would be!” Bob laughed.
Joe smiled ruefully. “It wouldn’t be so bad if I could see her more often, but she’s hardly ever here.”
Bob’s reply was lost in the wailing of the siren at the other end of the roof. The two men covered their ears with their hands until the deafening sound ceased. Even then their ears still rang, and they felt the echo of the siren roll around inside their heads. Joe shook his head to clear it, then pointed out over the city.
“My God, Bob! Look at that!”
Away to their left the sky was full of planes, like clouds of midges in the air above a still pond on a hot summer’s day. But these midges grew and grew until the shape of the enemy bombers could be see ndistinctly in the clear, moonlit sky.
“How many do you think there are?” Bob had to raise his voice as the awesome roar of the plane’s engines reached their still smarting ears.
Joe shrugged. “I don’t know. At least seventy or eighty, I would think.”
In fact there were a hundred, closely followed by three waves of equal number. The two members of the Home Guard watched the leading planes drop flares attached to parachutes, to light the targets for those who followed. Then the bombs began to fall.
Joe saw the ack ack open up, sending what looked like little puffs of cotton wool into the air, and the shells seemed to have no more effect than cotton wool on the armada of aircraft above them. The roar and thump of falling bombs was still distant, but as the planes drew closer Joe felt the vulnerability of their position.
“I don’t think we’ll be much use up here spotting tonight,” he called over his shoulder to Bob, as he ran towards the roof door that led to the stairs. “Let’s get down to ground level and see if we can be any help there.”
“Don’t worry! I’m right behind you!”
Within moments they were running out into the street and away from the tank factory, which must surely be a target for the enemy aircraft. There was a high-pitched screaming sound as a bomb hurtled down close by. The two young men dived into the relative safety of a doorway just as the bomb struck. It destroyed the end house of a terrace and left the adjoining one only half standing. As they left the doorway and ran through the clouds of dust, Bob saw the first flickering flames of fire spread along the fallen roof timbers.
“Quick! Let’s put that out before it spreads!”
It was easier said than done. The two men ran to the area of devastation that had once been a kitchen, and began carrying water from a ruptured pipe in two bowls they found lying nearby. It was hard, hot work, running backwards and forwards across the heaps of broken bricks, tables, chairs and pictures. At last they had the flames under control and, finally, they were out. All the time, Joe had been aware of the roar and thunder of the planes, the echoing explosion of bombs, the thump thump thump of the ack ack and the wailing of sirens. Now he stopped for a moment to look around him and stood rigid with horror. The factory where they had been on watch was situated high on a hill, and the whole of Coventry was spread before him like a map. The air was alight with searchlight beams, and full of aircraft raining down bombs in an endless stream. On all sides he could see the yellow glow of fires started by incendiary bombs. He saw that the raid was not confined to Coventry’s factories alone. Fires were burning in all areas of the city.
“There’s no point trying to make it back to HQ through this lot,” he muttered. “Let’s just get down there and see what we can do.”
As the two men made their way down the street a woman ran round the corner ahead of them, screaming as she came.
“My baby! My baby!”
Joe ran to her. “What’s wrong?”
“My baby was asleep so I didn’t go to the shelter. My house is gone! Where’s my baby?”
She turned and ran back around the corner. Joe followed close behind. A whole row of houses had been flattened by a stick of bombs, leaving little recognisable behind. The woman ran to the rubble and began to dig with her bare hands.
“She’s here somewhere! I know she is!”
Joe pulled her gently away.
“Wait in the street, love. Bob and I will see what we can do.”
Over to his right a ruptured pipe spurted flaming gas into the air. Somewhere behind a weakened wall toppled, and fell with a crashing of bricks as the two men carefully began to remove the rubble. It was not long before their bodies were soaked with sweat, their hands bruised and bleeding. After almost half an hour they found the family’s pet dog, a mongrel whose skull had been crushed by falling masonry. Joe looked at Bob, but said nothing. They both knew that the chances of a child remaining alive in this were remote. They dug on, slowly clearing an area of the more moveable debris. Then Joe stopped, his head to one side as though listening to something.
“What is it?”
Joe held up his hand, and Bob fell silent. Then Joe began to dig frantically, a little to the right of where they had been before.
“I’m sure I heard a baby cry,” he whispered as he removed part of a roof timber. Sure enough there was the edge of a white lace shawl, covered in red brick-dust. They were close to the child. Joe began to move more carefully now. A door had fallen against a partially demolished wall, leaving a small triangular space at its base. Joe reached carefully inside. To his immense relief his hand made contact with a warm, moving bundle. Gently he eased the child from its sanctuary and handed it up to Bob.
“She must be the luckiest baby alive. There isn’t even a scratch on her. That door saved her life.”
Bob made his way carefully across the rubble. He handed the baby to her sobbing mother.
“There you are, love. Now you get yourself and your little girl to a shelter. Fast.”
She smiled up at him through her tears.
Bob turned and called to Joe. “Come on. Let’s see what else we can do to help.”
The hours passed quickly. Sometimes the two men helped to dig in the rubble for survivors, though they lifted out more than one for whom the raid had spelt death. At other times they helped fight the fires which raged throughout the city, a task made increasingly difficult now that the water supply was totally unreliable. Clouds of choking black smoke hung in the air obliterating the stars, and also the waves enemy planes, but the drone of their engines could still be heard, along with the explosions of their bombs. Joe lost all sense of direction and had no idea where he was. The scale of destruction was so awesome that he was lost in the city which had been home to him all his life. Midnight came and went with no slackening of the raid. Dirty and exhausted, Joe thrust his face into a bucket of water for a moment, then shook it to send drops of water flying in all directions. Feeling only a little revived by the icy water, he surveyed the carnage surrounding him, and prayed that Sarah and her mother were safe.
There was a shocked silence in the Anderson shelter as the first bombs fell. Then Alice spoke.
“Well, it looks like this is going to be the real one we’ve all been waiting for.”
“How far away are the bombs, Mummy?”
Mary smiled reassuringly at Tommy.
“Don’t worry, love. We’re quite safe here.”
“Can Daddy hear the bombs?”
Mary shook her head.
“I shouldn’t think so, he’s in the army now. Remember?”
“He’s a long way from home, so a few bombs here won’t worry him.”
There was the sound of more explosions, seeming to be closer, and Sarah felt a tingling in her feet, as though the very earth was trying to tell her of its pain.
“How long will this go on for?”
Alice looked at Mrs. Cook and shrugged. There was no answer.
For a time they listened to the droning aircraft and the crash of bombs, at a loss for words. Then they heard the screaming sound of a bomb tearing through the air close by. It landed not far away with a terrific explosion. This time Sarah did feel the earth shudder. Moments later, debris rained down on the shelter, the thumps and bangs waking little Lucy who began to cry fearfully. Mary lifted her down from the top bunk and held her close.
“There, there, darling. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
The strange noises, and obviously nervous adults, filled the child with fear, and she continued to cry, despite her mother’s best attempts to quieten her. For a time the child’s sobbing was the only accompaniment to the awful cacophony from outside. Then a small, frightened whisper came from the top bunk.
“I’m scared, Mummy.”
Mary’s hands were full with little Lucy. She looked pleadingly at Sarah, who nodded reassuringly. She got up from the lower bunk and climbed up next to the little boy, having to lie down so she did not hit her head on the curved roof.
“It’s all right, Tommy. We’re quite safe here.”
The six year old looked at her with frightened eyes.
“Really. Would you like me to tell you a story?”
The small boy nodded and snuggled close to Sarah as she began to tell him the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
The whole city seemed to be ablaze. Streets were blocked by rubble, hampering the fire engines and ambulances in their work. Even if the vehicles were able to get through, there were far too few to make the slightest impact on the devastation. Joe and Bob attached themselves to a fire-fighting team and their whole world shrank to the size of the small road where they were working. It was a world of heat and flames, roiling black smoke, screams and cries, the shouts of men trying to bring order to the chaos. All the time the planes droned overhead. The barrels of the anti-aircraft guns followed them through the sky until, locked in the cross beams of the searchlights, they fired at the monsters which were spewing so much death and destruction on what had so recently been a calm, ordered world.
Joe was exhausted after a day of working in the aircraft factory and half a night lost in the confusion of the air raid. Working under the orders of the senior fireman on the scene, he moved from one task to another like an automaton. The carnage no longer broke through the barrier his mind had erected to carry him through the night. The sight of a doll, its head crushed by a falling brick, touched him with a tinge of sadness, but as he helped yet another injured person from the ruins of her home and bandaged her wounds, the pain and blood moved him not at all. Joe wondered at this total detachment. He could only see it as a mental escape valve to enable him to preserve his diminishing energy.
The dark night was moving slowly and inexorably towards dawn when the ‘Raiders Past’ signal finally sounded at nineteen minutes past six, almost twelve hours since the first bomb dropped on the unsuspecting city. For a moment the rescue workers paused and raised their weary eyes in relief. The sky was now empty of planes, but they did not halt for long. The raid might be over, but the task of clearing the devastation would take days, probably weeks, of continued backbreaking effort.
Joe and Bob were directed into a house with part of the roof and wall missing. Their instructions were to search for survivors. Initially there seemed to be little damage. Dust hung in the air like a midsummer haze, but it did little to impede their view. The front room was undisturbed. The embers of a fire glowed in the hearth, a mug of cold tea stood on the table. As the two men moved out into the hall they heard a sound, perhaps a groan, coming from the direction of the partially demolished staircase.
“Is there anybody there?
Joe listened to the silence for a moment, then the groan came again. Within seconds Bob and Joe were at the staircase, carefully removing the shattered remnants of the banisters. They had soon uncovered part of a torso, a man, and Joe began clearing towards the head. The injured man was old and frail. A blow to the head had rendered him unconscious, but Joe did not think he was seriously hurt. A sudden intake of breath from where Bob was uncovering the man’s legs caused Joe to turn and look.
“What is it? Are his legs badly hurt?”
Bob shook his head. “No. They’re just trapped under the thing that made such a bloody great hole in his roof, and demolished this staircase.”
Joe felt his throat go dry and his hands clammy. He licked his lips.
“You don’t mean…?”
“Yes.” Bob nodded. “A damned great German bomb. I doubt it was brought all the way over here just to make a hole in a roof, so I guess that it’s liable to explode at any moment.”
“Then we’ve got to get this old fellow out.”
Bob sucked in his lower lip thoughtfully, then nodded.
“I think we can do it. The bomb’s resting on a pile of timbers and tiles and is trapping the leg against the wall. If I prop it up with a few more timbers, we should be able to ease him out.”
Joe nodded. “The poor old fellow must have been sheltering under the stairs.”
“That bomb certainly seems to have had his name on it.” Bob gently eased the timbers aside, his forehead beaded with sweat, his brow furrowed with concentration. Joe watched, unable to offer more help than to hold the man’s shoulders and keep him still. The seconds ticked by, each one seeming an hour, each minute a day. At last Bob looked up.
“I think we can get him out now.”
Joe released his breath. He had not realised he was holding it. Gradually he dragged the old man clear. One of his legs was lying at an awkward angle, obviously broken, and Joe was relieved that the unconscious man could feel no pain.
“Come on then, Bob. Let’s get out of here.”
“That could be a bit of a problem.”
Joe looked across at his companion, who spoke fearfully through gritted teeth.
“The timbers have slipped. The bomb is only supported by me now. I’m afraid that if I move it will go off.” He licked his dry lips. “Get the old fellow out of here. Then send someone in to prop up this bomb.”
Joe hoisted the man over his shoulder. “I’ll be back before you can say Jack Robinson.”
“You don’t have to come back, Joe.”
“I do. You’re my mate. Now just hang on a minute.”
Joe began to make his way along the hall. His burden was light, for the old man was frail, and it only took him a few seconds to reach the front door. The blast took him there, throwing him and the old man through the door with the force of the explosion, leaving them lying there on the pavement like two discarded rag dolls.
After what seemed an endless night. Sarah looked at the watch Joe had given to her the previous Christmas. 6.16. As she gazed at the watch her thoughts were centred on Joe. Where had he been through the long, dark night? Was he safe? For a moment her anxiety for him held her frozen. All night long she had prayed for the air raid to end, and now that it had she was afraid to leave the shelter to face the unknown. None of the others moved. Eventually it was Tommy who broke the tense silence.
“Can’t we go now, Mummy? I’m hungry.”
His mother smiled indulgently
“Of course. Come on, my dears.”
She picked up little Lucy, still sleepy and clinging tightly to her mother. Tommy climbed down from the top bunk and took her free hand. Alice rose stiffly to her feet as Sarah opened the door of the Anderson shelter. The early morning air was cold, and she shivered. It should have been dark, it was still over an hour before dawn, but an eldritch orange glow streaked the night sky lighting it so brightly that Sarah could see her surroundings clearly. Her home still stood, though the force of an explosion had blown some of the windows in. On one side Mary Norman’s house was intact, but on the other, where the Cooks lived, some of the walls were cracked and all the windows were shattered. The house next to the Cooks’ had no roof left, and the walls leaned at dangerous angles. One of the bombs that had landed close by, probably the one that had shaken the very foundations of their shelter, had scored a direct hit further down the street. It had demolished three houses and badly damaged four more.In others curtains billowed out from shattered windows. For a moment the small group of people stood in silence; then Sarah spoke.
“If it’s like this here, what will it be like in the city centre?”
Alice shivered. “Worse no doubt. Let’s get our place cleaned up first, before we go to look.”
Sarah shook her head. “No. You should stay here. The fewer people wandering about the better. But I must go. I have a feeling my training is going to be needed.”
Alice looked long and hard at her daughter. She feared for her safety, yet knew she was right. Finally she nodded.
“Just be careful.” Without waiting for a reply she turned to the old couple, who were staring speechlessly at their damaged home. “Come on, Mr. and Mrs. Cook, there’s plenty of room for you in my house.”
Sarah watched the small group split up, Mary Norman taking her two children home while the elderly couple gratefully followed her mother up the garden path and through the kitchen door. Sarah turned and made her way towards the centre of the city.
There was death and destruction everywhere. Houses lay in ruins. Shops and factories burned furiously and there were not enough people to put out the raging fires. People wandered injured and shocked through the streets, and Sarah felt she had awoken in hell. She was stunned and walked aimlessly through the destruction, not knowing where to go or what to do. Then she saw two ambulance men carrying a stretcher towards a bombed house and ran towards them.
“Wait!” she called. The two men stopped and turned towards her.
“If you’re looking for someone, I’m afraid we can’t help you. We’re very busy.”
The young men looked exhausted. Sarah guessed they had been working all night.
“No, you don’t understand. I’m an auxiliary nurse at home on leave. What can I do to help?”
The young man smiled gratefully. “Thanks, love. We could do with all the help we can get. Injured people are being taken to the local schools. Do you know where the nearest one is?”
“Good. Go there. I’m sure they could use your help.”
Sarah watched the two ambulance men making their way towards the bombed house, and wondered if Joe was as tired and dispirited as them. That was if he was still alive of course. As Sarah made her way towards the school buildings her fears for Joe increased, and she was tempted to try to find him. But where should she look? Where could she start? His job of spotting would have been over as the first wave of planes came in. What had he done for the rest of the night? Sarah looked around her at the destruction, which stretched away in all directions. She realised that to search for him would be a waste of time and energy. If he had survived Joe would go to her house. She hoped and prayed that would be the case.
As Sarah rounded the next corner, she saw the local school. Part of the classroom block was destroyed, but the hall was still standing. She was in a state of mild shock as she made her way across the piles of rubble and through the open door where she stopped, stunned by the sight which greeted her eyes. Those not too seriously injured were seated on children’s chairs, waiting patiently. A doctor and four nurses laboured incessantly amongst the more seriously injured, who were stretched out on tables that had recently held nothing more gruesome than school dinners. After a moment’s hesitation, Sarah made her way over to the doctor. He was completing the amputation of the leg of a teenage girl. It was a mercy she was unconscious for Sarah could see no anaesthetics and precious few other medical supplies. The doctor spoke without looking up.
“Wait with the others please.”
Sarah did not want to spoil his concentration but knew that she must speak. “I’m a nursing auxiliary. What can I do to help?”
This time the doctor did look up. His face was haggard but determined, and there was a look of intense gratification in his eyes.
“Thank God. Do you think you could deal with some of the less seriously wounded, while we do the operating?”
Sarah picked up a nearby first aid kit and made her way towards the injured. Most had superficial cuts which she could deal with, and she set to work. The number needing her attention seemed endless, and she worked long and hard, the needs of those around her driving all fears for Joe from her mind.
Sarah worked unceasingly throughout the day and on into the night. Long before the injured ceased to make their way to the makeshift hospital, they had run out of everything – dressings, sutures, disinfectant, bandages, painkillers, antiseptics. The list was as endless as their needs. Able-bodied people who had brought their relatives for treatment were sent home to search for any first aid supplies they could find. Clean sheets were brought in and torn up for bandages, then sterilised in an old tin bath of boiling water placed over a fire made from roof timbers. Water was collected from broken pipes, which dripped incessantly. There was no electricity, so light was provided by a few candles scavenged from nearby houses, but their light was barely sufficient. The windows were broken allowing the chill November wind to sweep in, and the hands of the doctor and nurses were numb from the cold. Some of those who were uninjured came to offer their aid. The blankets they brought were gratefully received, some being used to cover the windows, while the rest were distributed to the patients. There seemed little chance of evacuating any of the wounded to a proper hospital. So far there had been no communication with anyone in authority, and the destruction was so great that it seemed unlikely that there would be any improvement in communications for some time. An able-bodied young man in his twenties was sent to the Town Hall, in the hope that someone there could tell them what was happening and send them some aid. But as the day wore on they were still awaiting his return.
With facilities so limited, all those not seriously injured had been sent home, including those with broken limbs, but that still left almost fifty seriously wounded people laid on the school tables: a baby with a fractured skull and severe internal injuries, the teenage amputee, a mother who had given birth in the debris of her home and almost died from loss of blood, a man with a broken back, an old woman suffering severe shock and pneumonia. The list was endless. By late evening, more than twenty-four hours after the bombing had begun, there had been six deaths, two of them during emergency operations. The bodies were removed to a small classroom to await identification and burial.
The night drew on. Sarah had been working in the school for sixteen hours when she looked up to find that no one else was waiting for treatment. She straightened up slowly, her back aching from so many hours bending, her fingers numb with the cold, her head aching with a pounding, throbbing pain that had been going on for hours. As she rubbed her tired eyes, she looked around her at the people whose lives had been so dramatically changed in the space of just one day, but she could find no tears for them. She did not know why. Perhaps she was too exhausted, maybe she was in shock. She did know, however, that her family had been remarkably lucky, and for this she was extremely grateful. Mixed with this gratitude was a gnawing fear about what had happened to Joe. There had been so much death and destruction. Everyone who came into the school had their stories of bombed houses and shelters, raging fires, rescuers injured by booby trapped bombs and land mines. Her fears for Joe’s safety increased.
As she rubbed her freezing hands together, Sarah was approached by the doctor she had spoken to when she first arrived. He looked exhausted, his face haggard and grey, his clothes covered with his patients’ blood.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t even know your name.” His voice was weak and shook with exhaustion. Sarah guessed he was little more than thirty, but the day’s experiences had aged him immeasurably. She wondered if she looked as bad as he did; perhaps that was why she could find no tears for the suffering around her.
“My name’s Sarah Porter. I’m based at Heronfield House near Marlborough. I was home on leave last night.”
The doctor took a deep breath. “I’m Charles Bailey. I’m just an ordinary G.P., but somebody had to do this.” He looked around him. “God knows how long it’s going to take to make some sort of order out of this mess. If we don’t get some of these people to a proper hospital soon, they’re going to die.”
“Have you heard anything from the messenger you sent to the Town Hall?”
Bailey shook his head. “I doubt if he’ll be back before morning. I told him not to come back until he had some firm news.”
“I’ll stay on as long as you need me.”
Bailey smiled weakly for the first time. “Thanks, I don’t know what I would have done without your help, or that of the other nurses who came here. They all live locally. I suppose you do too?”
“Is your house damaged?”
She shook her head. “No. We were lucky.”
“Then I suggest you go home and get some sleep. I’ve sent two of the nurses home too, the other two will stay and help me tonight. Perhaps you can come back in the morning to relieve them?”
Sarah smiled weakly. “Thanks. I don’t mind admitting I’m exhausted.” She looked around at the patients. Some were unconscious, many more sleeping, others lay groaning in unrelieved pain. “I’ll see if I can get hold of some food when I come back.”
Bailey’s eyes lit up. “That would be fantastic. These people must eat if they’re going to survive.” He smiled warmly at her. “Now get off home. I’ll see you again in the morning. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Doctor Bailey.”
Sarah wrapped her coat tightly around her against the cold night air, and made her way over the mounds of rubble in the school playground. When she reached the road, she walked down the middle where there was less rubble to impede her progress, though still enough to prevent motor vehicles from knocking her down in the blackout, though the blackout was in no way complete. Fires still burned where houses, shops and factories had once stood. Rescue teams still worked amongst the rubble, although with diminishing hope. Work parties were beginning to clear some of the rubble from the roads. Sarah could not believe that these were the streets where she had played as a child, where she had shopped with her mother and walked with Joe. Coventry was unrecognisable. She had an empty feeling deep inside when she thought of how long it would take to get things back to normal. As she turned into her own road she saw for the first time just how bad the damage from the bomb had been. Six houses were totally demolished, while the Cooks’ next door to her mother’s was in very poor condition. The damage to her own home was superficial, and she was glad that her mother still had somewhere to live.
As she walked tiredly through the front door Alice came out of the kitchen.
“Sarah! Where’ve you been? I’ve been so worried about you!”
Sarah hung up her coat and made her weary way to the kitchen. She slumped down at the table.
“I’ve been at the local school, they’re using it as a makeshift hospital.” She looked across at her mother, who was filling the kettle. “It was awful, Mum. There are so many people injured and nothing much we can do to help.”
Alice took her hand and helped her up from the table. “I’ll have to boil the kettle over the parlour fire, there’s no gas. Come on, love.”
The two women made their way to the front room, where they sat in front of the fire as the kettle began to heat.
“Have you heard anything from Joe?”
Alice shook her head.
“Sorry love, I’ve heard nothing. But don’t worry, I’m sure he’s out there helping to sort things out. We’ve been busy here today, first clearing out the glass and boarding up the windows, then helping to clear the road. Mr. and Mrs. Cook are upstairs asleep at the moment.” She smiled encouragingly. “Your Joe is a good man. He’ll know you’re worried, but he’ll put his duty to help others first. He’ll be back, when things begin to get sorted out. Wait and see.”
Sarah nodded. “I’m sure you’re right, Mum. I suppose I’m just tired.” She tried to bury her fears deep inside as she began to tell Alice of all she had experienced during the day. The death and destruction, the pain and suffering, the feeling of helplessness. The tears began to flow at last, partly for Joe but mostly for Coventry, her home; for its people, for what they had been and what they had become.
The First World War ended at 11am on 11th November 1918. Each year we take time to remember those who died. Each year we buy a poppy to help support the work of the Royal British Legion.
But do you know why the poppy is the symbol of remembrance?
And do you know how to wear your poppy correctly?
Many know of the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae, written in May 1915 after his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, had been killed during the Second Battle of Ypres. The poem describes poppies growing between the graves of British soldiers.
The poppy was later chosen as a symbol of remembrance because it was the first of the flowers to re-appear on the battlefields, and because of the three colours in this simple, yet beautiful, flower:
the deep red petals represent the blood of those who gave their lives for their country
the black represents the mourning of those whose loved ones never returned from the conflict
the green leaf represents the grass which covered the graves, and also hope for the future – crops being grown in a time of peace, and future prosperity after so much destruction
But did you know that the leaf should be worn in a particular position? Imagine that the poppy is a clock face, the leaf should be positioned at 11. This is a reminder that the death and destruction of World War One ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
And did you know that, whilst men wear their poppy on their left, many people say that women should wear the poppy on their right side? This is because it has always been traditional for women to wear broaches on the right. Many women still feel they should wear the poppy on the right, but the British Legion say you can wear it anywhere, as long as you wear it with pride.
So much symbolism in such a small thing.
As the years pass, fewer and fewer remember the symbolism of the poppy. I hope that this year you will take a few moments at 11am on 11th November to think of the poppy and what it represents.