It was Remembrance Sunday at the weekend. The sense of pride and honour I have in laying a wreath at the town’s War Memorial is very strong, and something which I take incredibly seriously. This is the one date in the annual calendar where I would simply refuse to do anything else. Come what may, I want to honour the men and women from Hartlepool who have lost their lives and who are protecting our liberty and freedom even today.
I think it is particularly important that children are made aware of the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, which is why I took my own children along to the service. With the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere constantly in the news, I believe that young people today are acutely aware of what Remembrance Sunday means in a way that is not abstract, but seems very real to them.
The ceremony which takes place on the Saturday morning in the military area within Stranton Cemetery, organised by the Royal Air Force Association and its Secretary Ian Fraser, a great man and proud veteran who has served in some of this country’s biggest conflicts in the last 30 years, grows in importance with each passing year. A key part of the ceremony, rightly in my opinion, is the importance of children – to ensure that the next generation also remembers and respects. Standing in the military cemetery with my own children, it never fails to shock me how young some of the fallen – 17 or 18 years’ old, some of those brave lads were.
And, as I age and my children grow up, my thoughts naturally turn from a feeling that these lads were close to my age, to a horrible realisation that many of those who fell were younger than my eldest children. During the ceremony I read out the beautiful poem “In Flanders Fields” Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, one of the most popular and quoted poems from the War. It is said that during the conflict soldiers took encouragement from it as a statement of their duty to those who had died.
The climax of Remembrance weekend is of course Sunday, and I was proud to lay a wreath on behalf of the town. The crowd was respectful and the tone and mood were correct; we should never glorify war, but we should admire the bravery and sacrifice that were made. I thought that the town demonstrated real admirable character during the service.
Remembrance Sunday is often looking to the past and commemorating the fallen in conflicts long since over. This year we have also remembered the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, a devastating battle in World War I in which 19,240 British soldiers were killed on the first day: 1 July, 1916. The Allies had bombarded German lines for seven days with over one million shells, but this made little difference to the well defended German trenches and during the 141 days of the battle we advanced seven miles at a cost of 420,000 British dead.
We should never forget the sacrifice of these young men and what they stood and fell for. But there are families in Hartlepool and across the country who today are tragically having to come to terms with the loss of a loved son or daughter. There are children who will never see their dad. I think it is often the present, and not only the past, that people look to when they attend a ceremony on Remembrance Sunday or observe the silence. It is a tiny way in which we can say thank you to those who have fallen while serving their country.