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LEST WE FORGET - Part One



By Mike Umbers


Remembrance Day in Hythe is well supported by the public though the veterans who used to form up in three ranks for the Service and lead the march from the War Memorial on the Canal bank to the Mayor at the saluting base at the Town Hall are much reduced in numbers now. Each year the event is reported in the Society’s Newsletter and the extracts which follow are a miscellany of items from past years.


Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ was published in The Times newspaper on 21 September 1914, very early in the War and even as the first casualty lists were going up:


With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,

England mourns for her dead across the sea.

Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,

Fallen in the cause of the free...


They went with songs to the battle, they were young,

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow,

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,

They fell with their faces to the foe.


They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,

Age shall not weary them, not the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM.


There were seven verses in all and they were read in full by King Edward VIII at the evening Community Singing organised by the British Legion in the Royal Albert Hall on Armistice Day 1936. The occasion was broadcast by the BBC but Lord Reith had given his magisterial opinion on ‘the wretched Mrs Simpson affair’ and decreed the King’s voice would not be heard on air! The veterans present received him enthusiastically nonetheless, but those in the know looked sharply up at him when the bands played ‘Hello, Hello, who’s your lady friend?’

I asked at the Royal British Legion Headquarters how and by whom that middle stanza from Binyon’s Poem was chosen for the Remembrance Service. Who first had the brilliant idea of using that middle stanza ‘They shall grow not old...’ and of making the last line a refrain? It is interesting technically that that line differs in metre from all the others – as if he had a premonition that it would be used on its own. (He did say later it was the first verse to be written, and the rest were moulded round it.) Since he lived on to 1943 Binyon was well aware that he had written lines more quoted than any other poem; his thoughts on this are not known; he was a quiet scholarly man, possibly too modest and shy to make public comment. A copy of the verse in his own hand-writing is displayed on the wall at the British Legion HQ in London; surprisingly the word ‘weary’ is replaced by ‘wither’ and it is said that Binyon himself was unsure which was correct!


So who came up with the idea? Was it a cleric, a civil servant, a soldier – or even a committee? And when was it first so used? I asked the British Legion for information but they have no record of the discussions which took place before the first Remembrance Day in 1920. The other poem touted for inclusion was ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae:


In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunsets glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.


The irony of the blood-red poppy as a symbol of course, is that it grew so profusely on the churned-up nitrogen-enriched soil, nitrogen being a main ingredient of the explosive shell.

The Legion historian believes the Remembrance Service format may be the product of a Home Office Committee; if so, it is surely the first ever committee to show imagination (or inspiration?) of such high order!


Much more is known about Sir Edwin Lutyen’s Cenotaph in Whitehall: he produced the first sketch as he sat in PM Lloyd George’s office; it was only intended to be a temporary structure a timber frame covered with plaster and 3 flags. On 18th July 1919 16,000 troops from many lands marched past it, saluting, and it stood until January 1920 when the effects of weather destroyed it. By public demand it was replaced by the stone and granite monument we see now, and unveiled by King George V at 11 am on 11 November 1920, with the coffin of the Unknown Warrior on a gun carriage nearby, awaiting interment afterwards in Westminster Abbey. And on 10 November 1946 King George VI unveiled it again, with the newly-sculpted dates of the Second World War.

Poppy Day began on the 11th November 1921. An American lady, Miss Moina Michael in reply to John McCrae’s poem wrote:

We’ve learned our lesson that ye taught

In Flanders Fields.


She wore the first Remembrance Poppy, but it was the French Secretary, Mme Guerin, who suggested that ex-servicemen, especially the disabled, should make artificial poppies for sale to help Service Charities. The British Legion took up the idea with enthusiasm.


Wearing a white poppy has caught on in recent years, with people who claim the red poppy is a glorification of war. Surely this is a misunderstanding of the symbol: ‘The traditional wreath is placed in recognition of the awesome fact that true progress is only made the hard way, through self-sacrifice and resistance to those who would turn the history of humanity backwards. The best way to honour the memory is not in front of the TV set but (if you are able) in front of your local Memorial where their names are engraved, kneeling wonderingly and prayerfully to that spirit of sacrifice which makes human nature divine.’


These are the words of the late Rev Oliver Willmott in his book, ‘Yours Reverently’


Hythe’s Remembrance ceremony used to include a line of armed cadets who fired a salute, but in 1997 for the first time no shots were fired. Local papers implied this decision was taken locally because of the Dunblane shooting massacre, but it was in fact a national ban, and it nearly prevented the Cadets from appearing at all. The Shorncliffe Garrison Commander (alerted by the Mayor) intervened so they did take part, but weapon-less. In fact the feu de joie was deemed militaristic by some (‘It smacks of IRA funerals’), and that part of the ceremony has never been restored, but the enthusiastic youngsters do still participate in the parade and in the days before, do their bit with the collection boxes.


The first Remembrance Day on 11 November 1920 was also the Funeral of the Unknown Warrior, the symbolic focus of the Nation’s mourning – this was the idea of the Vicar of Margate, who had to convince the Home Office (with difficulty) and the King (with ease). Six coffins from the main battlefields of France were assembled in a room, and the final selection was made by a blindfold officer. On the day, covered by a flag also from the battlefield, the coffin was brought from Boulogne to Dover on the destroyer HMS VERDUN – a compliment to our French Allies – which steamed into Dover Harbour to a 19 gun salute from the castle ramparts, the coffin, draped in the Union Jack, clearly visible on the after deck. It was brought ashore by Royal Navy pall bearers to the strains of Land of Hope and Glory and placed on the special train to Victoria Station whence it was pulled on a gun carriage to the Cenotaph for the unveiling by King George V with another 19 gun salute, then after a short service conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and a two minutes Silence the King unveiled the newly constructed Cenotaph and walked behind the gun carriage to the Abbey after the funeral service, and on again to Westminster Abbey for interment. Later the black marble stone was laid, inscribed:


‘They buried him among the Kings because he had done good toward God and toward His house’.


It had been planned that the grave of the Unknown Warrior would be closed after three days but the response of the people took the organisers completely by surprise. Once the ceremony was finished the thousands of people who had lined the streets began to queue to pass the Cenotaph. Most of them had brought wreaths or bunches of flowers to place at the base of the memorial. At least 40,000 people then passed through the Abbey before the doors were closed at 11.00 pm, an hour later than the scheduled closure time. The pilgrimage went on throughout the weekend and up to the time the grave was eventually closed a week later an estimated 1,250,000 people had visited the Abbey. It seems that in a sense we have now forgotten, that grave became the focus of loss for countless families who had nowhere else to grieve, no ‘closure’ as we now call it.


The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs

And sunset, and the colours of the earth.

They had seen movement, and heard music, known

Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;

Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;

Touched flowers and furs and cheeks.

All this is ended.

from ‘The Dead’ by Rupert Brooke

Photo of War Memorial

Hythe’s War Memorial, undated. A photograph by Benjamin William Horton, possibly after Hythe’s remembrance service in 1921. HCS Collection.



Part Two follows


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