Army of memories marches by

Ann Treneman
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:46

WHEN YOU go to the Ceremony at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, you end up seeing little of the Cenotaph or the actual ceremony. What you do see is an ocean of old soldiers swaying from Horseguards Parade to Downing Street.

Other than the poppies, there was no sense of a uniformed group. Each person had put together their own outfit and the result was, well, a mishmash. Medals dangled from anoraks, wheelchairs were draped in tartan. There were handbags and trews and Wellingtons. The eclectic headgear included polka-dotted rain bonnets, berets and cockades, bowlers and tweed caps.

Most of the men and women who were waiting to lay a wreath were at least 60. Some leant on walking sticks. The mood, surprisingly for such a military crowd, seemed gentle. And chatty too. These people had come to remember, but also to reminisce. So, while the invisible VIPs laid their wreaths, the street became convivial.The odd hip flask could be spotted.

It was a day for random acts of kindness and specific remembrances. Tom Jones is 86, survived the war but lost a leg to diabetes. He and his wheelchair were there yesterday by the grace of a paramedic who offered to chaperone. Twins Beryl and Brenda are now 65 but they came to mourn a brother who died when they were 12 and he was 18. Bob George, aged 77, says about 60 of his classmates went to war, now there are 18. "In those days, you just accepted that that's what happened to you."

Only a few can remember the Great War now and the 80th anniversary of its ending was very much on people's minds. One woman urged me to read Sebastian Faulks' war novel Birdsong: "But not in the winter, you'll get too depressed. In the spring." She looks at me, eyes glittering: "Can you imagine knowing that you are going to be killed when you go over the hill?" Gwen Reynolds introduced herself by showing me her father's medals. He fought at Passchendaele. "He survived the war - just." We agree the medals are heavy and she pins them to her coat. It is the first time she has done so.

Two old soldiers left their comrades and joined the onlookers. Jeffrey Haward MM is from Kent and leans heavily on his stick. "Growing pains," he says. His friend is Denis Daly. "He used to be my sergeant," Mr Daly said. "You know, all the friends who died so long ago, in my mind they are still young," Mr Haward, now 79, said.

Finally, the old soldiers start to march towards the Cenotaph. Everyone is wet now. Some swing their arms, others can do little more than shuffle. It doesn't matter because this is not a military operation. After all, they've done that already - and lived to remember.

French mutiny row, page 13

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