100 years ago today the guns fell silent on the Western Front in Europe, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Armistice marking the end of fighting of World War One having been signed at 5.20am that morning.
This morning I dusted off my uniform and medals and joined a congregation of over 500 men, women and children to mark Remembrance Sunday and the Centenary of the Armistice. I read the second reading in church (Matthew, 5 verses 1-12), the last post rang out at precisely 11am and 39 poppy wreaths were laid at the Eccleshall war memorial. On this centenary year, we have added the names of 17 men from Eccleshall, killed during the Great War, whose names were missed off the war memorial when it was originally unveiled in 1921. Later this afternoon I rang the half tonne tenor bell as I joined 7 other bell ringers in ringing a 47 minute quarter peel to mark the Centenary. The bells had rung a quarter peel, half-muffled, earlier in the day ringing the 6 bells that date back to before 1914 and would therefore have rung to celebrate the end of the fighting 100 years ago today.
The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR) have mounted a campaign to recruit an additional 1,400 new bell ringers this year; 1,400 being the number of bell ringers known to have lost their lives during the First World War. After the original Armistice every bell tower in the country was written to in order to compile a central roll of honour. 1,100 names were recorded. During the Centenary this list has been reviewed and in the process the Council discover a further 300 bell ringers who died in service. Two bell towers – Edington in Wiltshire and Bamburgh in Northumberland – lost 6 ringers each. The Edington ringers were at the heart of the local community. While one was a carer in a local hospital, others were farmers and a wheelwright. Four of the 6 played in the local football team. None were recorded on the original Roll of Honour because no one was left in the tower to reply to the original CCCBR letter.
Services, ceremonies and parades often centre on Cenotaphes, war memorials and cemeteries and there are some 2,500 Commonwealth War Cemeteries worldwide. In each of these cemeteries headstones inscribed simply “A soldier known unto God” mark the final resting places of those who could not be identified. The huge monuments at the Menin Gate and at Thiepval list the 55,000 and 72,000 British and Commonwealth troops who have no known graves from the battles around Ypres and on the Somme respectively in The Great War. It is often surprising to come across sailors at some of these sites so far from the sea but the Royal Navy provided a Division, some 10,000 men, who saw action on the Western Front in the First World War, including during the battles on The Somme and at Passchendaele.
The memorials to the officers and men of the Royal Navy and Commonwealth navies who were killed at sea and have no known grave are at Plymouth, on Plymouth Hoe overlooking Plymouth Sound; at Southsea in Portsmouth overlooking The Solent and
the approaches to Portsmouth Harbour; and at Chatham. They list a total of 66,500 officers and men. Other Naval memorials can be found at Halifax and Victoria in Canada, Auckland, Mumbai, Chittagong and Hong Kong and in each case the men listed have no other grave than the sea. More than 3,000 British-flagged merchant vessels and fishing vessels were lost during the First World War. 4,700 were lost during WW2. Civilian merchant sailors and fishermen are remembered on memorials in coastal towns and cities throughout the country. The Tower Hill Memorial is a pair of memorials in Trinity Square on Tower Hill, London that commemorates 12,000 civilian merchant sailors and fishermen killed as a result of enemy action in the First World War and 24,000 merchant seamen killed during the Second Wirld War, all of whom have no graves other than the sea.
“In ocean wastes no poppies blow,
No crosses stand in ordered row,
There young hearts sleep …. beneath the wave…
The spirited, the good, the brave,
But Stars a constant vigil keep,
For them who lie beneath the deep,
’Tis true you cannot kneel in prayer
On certain spot and think. “He’s there.”
But you can to the ocean go …
See whitecaps marching row on row;
Know one for him will always ride….
In and out …. with every tide.
And when your span of life is passed,
He’ll meet you at the “Captain’s Mast.”
And they who mourn on distant shore
For sailors who’ll come home no more,
Can dry their tears and pray for these
Who rest beneath the heaving seas ….
For stars that shine and winds that blow
And whitecaps marching row on row.
And they can never lonely be
For when they lived … they chose the sea.” (Eileen Mahoney, 2001)
HMS Coventry (above)was hit by 3 1000lb bombs in the South Atlantic on 25 May 1982. She sank in 12 minutes. HMS Barham (below) was hit by 3 torpedoes in the Mediterranean on 26 November 1941. She blew up within 5 minutes of being torpedoed with the loss of 862 officers and men. Next of kin were asked to keep their husbands loss secret ….. “it is most essential that information of the events which led to your husband’s loss of life should not find its way to the enemy until such time as it is announced officially.” The sinking of HMS Barham was announced on 27 January 1942.
Remembrance Sunday services on board Her Majesties Ship’s will be held at sea this year as they always are by those warships, men and women who are on patrol. In the larger of our ships these services will be conducted by the ship’s own chaplain. In ships away for 6 month periods, such as the Falkland Islands or the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean, chaplains will be deployed to conduct such services, but in all other minesweepers, frigates, destroyers and submarines the Captain leads and conducts the service. Traditionally, and where possible, such services are held on the upper deck (i.e. outside) and are attended by all personnel other than those required to keep the ship functioning, even when at anchor. The ship’s Battle Honours Board (a board on which all the Naval actions in which ships of that name have seen action are carved) often acts as the centre piece at which poppy wreaths are laid by the Captain and, traditionally, the most junior person onboard. Wreaths are not, as a matter of course, put into the sea except on occasions when ships are in the vicinity of known naval wrecks (classified themselves as war graves) where every effort will be made to lay wreaths in the vicinity. Services where such wreaths are laid on the site of a wreck of a ship with the same name are particularly moving. Ships operating in the South China Sea nearly always divert to hold Remembrance services over the wrecks of HMShips Prince of Wales and Repulse, the final resting place of over 800 officers and men killed in 1941. Both wrecks, upside down in about 65m of water, have buoys and wires fixed to their propeller shafts to which large white ensigns are attached and regularly replaced, beneath the surface of the sea.
This time next year, on Remembrance Sunday, I will be about 12 days or so into the Clipper 2019-2020 crossing of the Southern Ocean. I will be somewhere like 2,400 miles from South Africa and a similar distances from Western Australia, pretty much right in the middle. It is highly possible that, with the exception of the other Clipper yachts the nearest humans will be those manning the International Space Station, but ………….. with “whitecaps row on row” …………. I will remember them.