When my sister Chris and I were waiting in the Manchester Airport for our connecting flight to Inverness, we noticed business men and women with red poppies on their suit labels. We were surprised since it was only Oct. 29.
“Oh, yes,” we were told later. “People begin wearing poppies almost a month before Remembrance Day.”
Veterans Day is a non-event in the U.S. Schools and government offices close on the nearest Monday, and the news provides coverage of poorly attended parades. November 11 is just another day.
In the week leading up to Remembrance Day, poppies began appearing on almost everyone. Since this November marks 90 years since the Armistice of WWI, BBC news provided week-long coverage of one of the battlefields in France and talked about and showed the remains of some of the trenches.
That’s when it really hit us. Our grandfather, a member of the 28th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Forces, was based at Shorncliffe and fought on the front in France. They had emigrated to Canada and our grandmother followed him to England with our mother, aged 5, and uncle, aged 7.
In her memoirs, our mother describes an incident when our grandmother was visiting our grandfather at the camp, which was across the river from where they were living at the time. “A German air-raid came over and bombs were dropped on the camp. Mother immediately had to leave, and since there was a blackout, it was not easy to get home. She had to cross a bridge over the river and was stopped three times by sentries with rifles who called out, ‘Who goes there?’”
“One of the stories I remember,” Chris explained to some of the cousins we were visting, “was about our grandfather being buried alive during the war.” He had been wounded twice and then buried in the trenches during an air-raid. He was passed over by the medics the first time they picked up those they thought were wounded. When they returned to dig out the ones that were buried, they realized that he was still alive. Our grandmother received a telegram saying that he was killed in France. Then she got one saying he was injured.
“She assumed that the telegrams had been reversed,” Chris relayed, “so she went to France, left our mom and uncle in a boarding house, and set off to find him.” She thought she would be claiming a body, but found him alive, although injured.
“The trench had collapsed,” Chris continued. “He stayed alive by pulling the collar of his uniform out away from his throat so he could breathe.”
Even though southern England experienced shelling and 703,000 Britons died in WWI, none of the groups of cousins we met with had any stories. One of the common threads of our visits with cousins was the dearth of information their grandparents shared. Even though our mother wrote down the story of her life after much prodding, there is much we wish we knew about our grandparent’s lives. We discovered we are not alone with this sentiment.
An elderly woman interviewed on the BBC revealed that she had not shared information with her children or grandchildren about her father’s participation in World War I. “It was just a fact of life,” she stated.
On November 9, Remembrance Sunday, we attended services at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church near Trafalgar Square. The vicar announced that at 11:00, the congregation would be invited to stand and face the recently installed new east window, replacing a window installed following World War II bomb damage, for the two minutes of silence. Following the silence, chills went up our spine as bugles played from the balcony.
While we were observing the silence in St. Martin’s, the whole of the United Kingdom also was in silent observation. Down the street at the Cenotaph on Whitehall Road, the Queen was laying a wreath.
We made our way towards the Cenotaph an hour later. The ceremony was breaking up and we felt like salmon swimming upstream as we walked against the throng. Veterans stood shoulder to shoulder around the wreath-laden area.
“We keep saying we should attend sometime,” our cousin Beryl told us that afternoon. “It must have been memorable.”
We were at Heathrow Airport at 11 a.m. on November 11. At 10:45, an announcement encouraged everyone at the airport to join them in observing two minutes of silence. The tradition of two minutes of silence has continued since the Armistice in 1918.
At 11:00 the hustle and bustle of the airport came to a halt. Many stood in respect, and the airport became eerily quiet.
It was meaningful to visit at this time and remember the sacrifices of our grandparents.