I took my boy to a football match this Saturday, the local derby that is Brentford v QPR. It was away and the traffic was terrible as we slogged across west London eventually conceding defeat and parking in the retail hell-hole that is Westfields shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon.
As is the tradition, every football club commemorates their dead from all conflicts before the home match closest to remembrance Sunday and Loftus road fell quiet as all rivalry was forgotten and the stadium stood in respectful silence as you would expect.
I’m no stranger to Remembrance Sunday events – my grandfather, the late great Bill Jones used to play the last post at very many of them in the grounds of the old Llanelli Town Hall. At the time I was more excited by the idea of wearing my best coat with the fake fur collar and my shiny “wet-look” boots. Outing myself there as a child of the 70’s. I didn’t really understand. I’m still not really sure I understand the enormity of what those men on the front lines went through but as I have got older I have appreciated the impact of their sacrifice on a personal level.
My grandmother’s father, Ernest Hopkinson, was a career Navy man – though how the son of a Nottinghamshire miner made his way to Portsmouth with a plan to set to sea is a story sadly forever lost – and when war broke out he had about 10 years service under his belt and volunteered to serve in the submarine service. It was a volunteer only branch due to the risky nature of submarines at that time and he served on E10 in the Baltics out of Harwich. E10 disappeared on 18 January 1915 with 3 officers and 28 men on board. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that divers found the wreck with mine damage and the mystery of the missing submarine was solved.
He left behind a wife and two small girls aged four and two and his wife, Lily, remarried a man who was in a protected profession and who would not allow any discussion of her first husband and his girls never once saw a photograph of him. To hear my grandmother talk, her stepfather was a deeply unpleasant man who resented his stepdaughters and who would prefer them to be out working than to use the scholarship to a local private school that my grandmother won. I have no idea how much her judgement was coloured by his character and how much by her own resentment but she remained bitter about the way he treated her, her whole life.
So Ernest disappeared from view as if he had never existed but his loss reverberated though the century impacting those he had loved. His sacrifice was their sacrifice too.
In a bizarre twist of fate I stumbled across a nephew of Ernest’s who had been given a family tree with photos of every one of Ernest’s brothers and sisters (all 12 of them!) – including a photo that I can only assume was Ernest and Lily on their wedding day and Ernest is looking out at the world, in his navy uniform looking so very similar to a modern Navy uniform, so real, so live. Visible again.
I didn’t tell my mother and made her a card from the two passport sized photos of her grandparents and when I gave it to her, we both cried. Cried because of the sadness that her mother had not lived to see the face of her own father. That her mother’s mother had not been brave enough to share it with her daughters even secretly, that my grandmother’s life had been so scarred by the loss of her father for such a long time.
Standing side by side with my 12 year old, thinking of Ernest in the silence, I remembered something I’d heard in an interview on the radio in the run up to the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1. The youngest soldier to serve in the battlefields in WW1 was 12 and was reportedly too short to see over the trenches. He was recalled along with other underage soldiers but not before they had experienced the horror of the Somme. I looked over at Daniel, with his fresh-faced serious look. A boy learning to be a man at the battle of West London teams and thought of another boy 100 years ago signing up to be a man in a real battle.
On the last day of WW1, there are estimated to have been around 11,000 casualties. To put that into perspective, that’s more than the number of casualties on D-Day. I realised it was also approximately the number of men in that stadium we were in, who would have been serving 100 years ago. A whole Loftus road stadium of a generation of men killed or injured in one day.
It’s hard to keep the idea of “Lest we forget” alive and real and anchored in the present so that we don’t forget the lessons others learned for us. For me, it’s remembering the bitterness of my grandmother who died a cleaner, never having been allowed the education she deserved and it’s looking at the faces of the men and boys around me at that match and acknowledging that their predecessors were scared and brave ordinary men doing the best they could with the mess that the politicians had created.
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”