Driving back from Westminster, I witness the crowds flocking to see the unique and awe inspiring ceramic poppy field at the Tower of London. It is a red carpet of 888,246 poppies, one for each British and Colonial life lost in the First World War.
My in-laws travelled to France searching for five family members who died in the conflict. They felt driven, decades later, to visit the memorials and graves of their family fallen, particularly the memorial dedicated to John Bernard Cullen, conscripted at eighteen, who died soon after in late 1918, during the final German offensive at the St Quintin canal. My Father-in-Law told me of their deep emotional response to the memorial bearing his name. He, like many others writing in the book of condolence, expressed sorrow for taking so long to get there.
My great grandfather, William James Gammons, who lived in Canning Town, fought in the Royal Artillery Regiment and survived. So many families were not as lucky as mine.
Approximately 100,000 West Ham men were sent to fight the war’s most terrible battles. A quarter of the West Ham ‘Pals’ battalion were killed in April, 1917 attacking the village of Oppy, just four short months after the Silvertown explosion. The double impact of these events on our community must have been devastating.
Some in the Press have criticised the poppy installation. They feel that this rather beautiful and poignant display does not, and cannot, express the sheer horror of that war. I understand this criticism, much preferring the poetry of Wilfred Owen to that of Rupert Brooke. Nonetheless, this installation, the remembrances we observe on 11th November, visits to war graves and memorials all contribute to thoughtful commemoration and sober reflection on the price, devastation and misery of war.
Honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice a century ago. Remember the valour, brutality, agony and sacrifice; but remember, too, those who bore home the lifelong burden of unfathomable survival.
Honour also to-day’s courageous service personnel, everything they risk and overcome. Repay our debt to the Armed Forces, past and present, and their families, with the respect, care and support they deserve.