Donald Macintyre's Remembrance Day Sketch: Private faces at public tribute reveal true human cost


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“Private faces in public places,” Auden writes, “are wiser and nicer than public faces in private places.” Such a public place was the Cenotaph at 11am on Armistice Day in this Great War centenary year. The focus of Sunday’s ceremony had been on the wreath-laying monarch, prime ministers past and present, ambassadors and generals.

Today it was hundreds of private faces that dominated – old and not so old soldiers of course, but also the spectators lining Whitehall as the Union Jacks fluttered at each end of the Foreign Office in a silence so deep that it seemed even the birds had stopped singing.

There were in fact a few public faces: Welsh singer Cerys Matthews reading the famous poem by the Canadian Expeditionary Force physician John McCrae, whose close friend Alex Helmer was among the 1,000 of his countrymen killed in the second battle of Ypres: “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.”

And David Cameron, whose office had politely alerted the organisers just before the service that he would be coming, stood, dark-suited and commendably unobtrusive, in the second row of Western Front Association invitees, behind the wheelchair veterans from the Star and Garter homes.

The service was simple. A Scots Guard bugler played “The Last Post”. A lone London Scottish piper slow marched round the Cenotaph playing, hauntingly, “Flowers of the Forest”. Between prayers, the Association padre Brother Nigel Cave recited a list of 1914-18 battles, some famous, like Mons, Marne, and Vimy Ridge, others now remembered only by military historians and the descendants of the fallen and wounded, like Valerie Beattie, 59, who laid a wreath for her great-uncle Leonard Peacock, killed in the Battle of High Wood in 1916. Wreaths were laid, too, by children from Thetford School, Norfolk, which lost seven pupils and four teachers in the First World War.

As the ceremony ended Paul Jones, 37, who served in Afghanistan with the Royal Signals said he was there to remember colleagues and friends who had “made – it may sound cheesy – the ultimate sacrifice” – and their bereaved families.

In the Red Lion pub afterwards Major Chris Hunter, a well-known former counter-terrorism bomb disposal expert shot and wounded in Iraq while in the specialist  11 Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit, and who also served in Afghanistan and Colombia, said: “In that two minutes’ silence there isn’t a soldier, sailor or airman who doesn’t think about the  war zones he’s be in, the sad losses of his colleagues, but also the good times which bond us all.”

Stewart Cardy, 54 who served with distinction as a 2 Para sergeant during “some interesting days” in the Falklands, also saying it was important to remember the fallen, added: “It’s not about medals and tunes. It’s about the blokes you were with, the absent friends who are not here having a beer with us today.”