We should reflect on this Remembrance weekend with gratitude. For many, it is deeply personal
I am one of those fortunate people whose relatives fought in both World Wars and survived. Indeed, if my father had not come through the horrors of the trenches in World War One unscathed, physically at least, I would not be writing this article now.
It was typical of his generation that they rarely spoke of their experiences, but he did once say that it had made him fatalistic, since you could come through uninjured and the soldier next to you be blown to pieces.
It is my father’s comrade and the countless thousands who died by land, sea, and air in the course of the two world wars, and many conflicts since, that we think of this coming Remembrance weekend with gratitude. For many, the deaths are deeply personal and affect the rest of their lives.
I refer in particular to the wives and children who’ve lost husbands and fathers – the war widows called upon to deal with great grief, loneliness and bringing up children alone. In days gone by, there was often great financial hardship since benefits were measly and many saw their small war widows’ pensions taxed. Indeed, it was this sense of grievance that led to some enterprising widows campaigning to end the tax – and so was formed the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain, now celebrating its 50th anniversary.
We now hold our own service of Remembrance on Saturday morning, with a military band and led by our own padre and hundreds of spectators
I am both proud and humbled to be President of the Association, with a Royal Patron in HRH The Prince of Wales. He recently held a tea at Clarence House to celebrate the anniversary and acting as his escort, I saw the genuine interest he took. Prince Charles even spoke to a few carers escorting the more infirm widows; apologising for there not being enough room at the tables to be seated next to their lady.
Over the years, I have heard countless stories from these brave widows and I am delighted that the Association, in cooperation with lecturers at a University, embarked on a project to let those willing share their experiences in their own words. This will be made in to a book, available for future generations to understand something of the traumas they suffered.
Another project involved ladies with needle work skills making squares to form a quilt. Each widow was able to make her own point in the square and some even formed them into a pocket, with a precious memento inside. The finished quilt took on an amazing unity and is both beautiful and moving. It will be displayed in a suitable museum for present and future generations to see.
Of course, Remembrance weekend is a major event in the Association’s calendar, and we shall take our place in the great march past the Cenotaph. This right was hard fought for some years ago, as those most deeply affected by war were not allowed to march! It was this exclusion that led a few brave widows to risk life and limb, crossing traffic in Whitehall, to lay a solitary wreath at the foot of the Cenotaph the day before.
It was a simple cross of white chrysanthemums, as they were the cheapest flowers to buy in November. The event blossomed and we now hold our own service of Remembrance on Saturday morning, with a military band and led by our own padre and hundreds of spectators. We still lay a cross of white chrysanthemums.
For me, the most poignant moment in the service, is when I read a poem written by a war widow expressing her feelings about the loss sustained and the need to carry on. Sometimes we have had the band accompany the reading to the tune of “Danny Boy”. Only the coldest of hearts could fail to be moved at such a moment.
Baroness Fookes is a Conservative peer and President of the War Widows' Association of Great Britain.
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