Tuesday, 05 March 2024

Remembrance Revisited

I must start this article with a confession. For most of my adult life I had little time for Remembrance Sunday. My experience was that too often it became jingoistic, xenophobic and, sometimes, almost a celebration of war. I was born in 1944, just before VE day, and by the time I was a teenager I was bored with the stories of the war and the coming together of communities between 1939 and 1945. I was a teenager in the 1960s and all I wanted to do was look forward, not back.

Many years later, now a lay preacher, I would avoid taking preaching appointments for that particular Sunday, never sure how to handle it. This changed in 2008. At that time, I was working as Head of Fundraising for a youth homeless charity in Birmingham called St Basils. The charity was named after the redundant Anglican Church where we had our headquarters. It is a grade two listed building and, as such, any changes that we made had to be reversible. One area that was virtually unchanged was the apse. A divider had been put up to separate it from what would have been the main area of the church, then used as the boardroom, but the apse itself was mainly unused. Behind the altar there was a stack of what can only be described as rubbish, gathering dust and unloved.

Among those items was the plaque of remembrance for those of the parish of St Basils who died in the 1914-1918 war. When my colleague, Catherine Clarke, discovered it, it was dirty and unloved, and she was appalled. She had it cleaned and re-mounted on the wall ready for a rededication service on 11th November. This was announced on BBC local radio and, to our amazement, the grandson of one of the fallen remembered on the plaque was listening and decided to attend.

So, I was cornered, I had to lead the service and so I thought it was time that I did some more research. Thirty-seven million died in the so-called Great War. The problem is none of us can imagine so great a number. Therefore, unless we have some of our own family to remember, the danger is that they become just numbers. But on the St Basils plaque there are just 119 names and, as I investigated the records, I was reminded that these were real. They were sons, brothers, fathers. Real men who did not come back. Real men who do lie in the corner of some foreign field.

James Waldron was a Private in the Gloucestershire Regiment. He was twenty-eight when he died on 13th October 1915. He left behind a wife, Alice, who lived at 48 Homes Building, Palmer Street in Bordesley Green. His widow had no grave to visit, James's body was never found, his name is on the memorial in Loos cemetery in France, alongside another 20,000 with no known grave.

Then there is Joseph Ganderton, a corporal in the East Lancashire Regiment. Twenty-two when he died in November 1916. He is listed as leaving behind his mother, Alice Maria Jones of 73 New Canal Street. He lies in Waggon Road cemetery in the Somme.

William George Clements, Private, Royal Warwickshire Regiment age twenty-four. Son of Mr and Mrs Clements, husband of Elizabeth of 10 Sycamore Avenue, Clifton Road, Moseley. He was buried close to where he fell in the unfortunately named Thistle Dump Cemetery. He shares that cemetery with 137 British soldiers and seven German soldiers.

George Billingsley, also of the Warwick's. Son of Mrs E Billingsley of Allcock Street. Allcock Street is where I parked my car every working day for 16 years. These were real people, from real homes with real families who suffered real grief. I have many more stories about the men on this plaque but perhaps the saddest was Private TW Attenborrow who died in Italy just four days before the Armistice in 1918.

At the end of any conflict there must be two emotions: joy that the war is over and sadness at the appalling cost of that victory. It is the cost that we remember every November. Remember those lives given, like the men from St Basils, that the world may change, be better. As I grew up the custom on this Sunday was to focus on the 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 wars but, in a new century, and as time marches on, we acknowledge with sadness that there are still many conflicts in the world; there are still millions of victims. As I write this the War in Ukraine rumbles on and a new conflict has just begun in Palestine/Israel. We must remember the victims in all conflicts, pray for them and press for solutions that do not involve more killings.

So, 15 years ago, my attitude changed. I try now not to look at the big numbers but to break them down to the individuals, the personalities, the real people who were involved in these conflicts. Because of that, I can no longer turn away. I, too, will remember them.

Br Blair Kesseler
Hall Green

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