Today is Armistice Day which, on this 11th November, marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One. Today in London, a young cadet will plant the last in a sea of ceramic poppies in the grounds of The Tower of London: one poppy, 888,246 of them, for every British and Colonial soldier, sailor and airman who perished in the First World War.
This moving and poignant artwork – Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red – was created by artist Paul Cummins and it is he who will hand the last poppy to the young cadet just before 11 o’clock this morning.
Commemorations will also take place to honour the fallen in the Second World War, with today marking 70 years since the D-Day landings and the end of Britain’s conflict in Afghanistan.
On the hour at 11 o’clock this morning, a two-minute silence will be held across our land in remembrance of all the fallen and the great sacrifice given by so many. I wonder what men like my husband’s grandfather would make of this day.
Young Dorset boy Walter Ridout joined up as a volunteer in the Army in 1914 and fought in the Battle of the Somme. His war ended in France three years later in 1917, when he was gassed with Mustard Gas and invalided back to England. A stoic man and not one to complain, as soon as he was able, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work as the farm labourer he was to be all his working life.
He went on to marry and have six children, one of whom was my husband’s mother. They all lived in a tied cottage, Walter taking a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, and a flagon of cider every day for his lunch out in the fields. If no cheese was available, he took a whole onion and ate it like an apple. During the Second World War he served in the Home Guard. He lived well into his eighties, but he never spoke of the horrors of the trenches, nor of his fallen brothers whose names are represented by a handful of ceramic poppies in London today.
Then I think of Albert Edward Matthews, a gritty Londoner, my husband’s father, who served as a Tank Sergeant in the 8th Royal Tank Regiment as a Desert Rat, fighting in El Alamein against Rommel’s Afrika Korps in 1942. He travelled through Libya to Italy and into Germany, where his war ended in 1945. He stayed in Germany until 1948 before returning home to England, marrying my husband’s mother. It was known that although he rarely spoke of the war, his nightmares never left.
But one man in the Matthews’ family didn’t make it home: Stanley George Matthews, ‘Uncle Stan’, lies buried deep below the black, heavy waters off the coast of Greenland, brought down with HMS Hood, sunk on 24th May 1941 by the German battleship Bismarck. He was twenty-two.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
(From the poem The Fallen, Laurence Binyhn 1869-1943)