Words from Peter Livsey:
On the day before the commemoration I went first to visit the Abbey before security was put in place. I knew it was closed the whole weekend, but I was able to walk up to the west entrance and saw the Field of Remembrance – hundreds of little crosses arranged by regiment or branch of service. I went down Whitehall to the Cenotaph, scene for the next day’s 11am ceremony.
In a side street stands a statue of a Gurkha soldier, a reminder of those from the Indian subcontinent who served in the war. Up Constitution Hill from Buckingham Palace are the Commonwealth Memorial Gates, commemorating soldiers from what are now Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as well as, Africa and the Caribbean, who served alongside the British and those from the independent Dominions.
It rained hard all night, but by 9am on Sunday it was clear and bright. The Post Office Tower had revolving messages, “Thanks to all who served, sacrificed and changed our world.’ with images of poppies and soldiers. At the Merchant Marine Memorial on Tower Hill they were reading aloud, for the first time ever, all the names on the panels of sailors lost at sea in the War. Although the Arab sailors from South Shields are commemorated in Mumbai, I could see the names of two of their ships that I researched – ‘Zillah’ and ‘Strathcona.’ Security here was provided by Metropolitan Police cadets, almost all young Muslim women in blue hijabs.
At Euston Station the 2 minutes silence at 11am was part of a large military and civilian gathering, multiethnic and largely young, a Scots Guardsman next to a Gurkha, a priest next to an Imam, while a young woman played the Last Post. On St. Pancras Station, transparent silhouettes of soldiers stood by the Eurostar trains – “There, but not There.”
The Abbey service that evening was very well conducted. The Unknown Soldier’s grave was bordered with brightly coloured flowers. When the Queen arrived, the blue police lights and camera flashes were like silent fireworks in the darkness outside. Then, the great west doors were closed and the Queen and the President of Germany laid white wreaths on the tomb, with ribbons of their national colours. Other white wreaths were laid by three groups of three young people, mainly black or Asian, two quite severely disabled, all very proud.
There were readings by famous actors and notables. But, the best were by young people. A 14 year old girl of Sikh heritage who had won a poetry competition read, “For all who gave themselves in service during the First World war, for the sacrifice of those in the Armed Forces, and for the contribution of men and women across the Empire who offered themselves in service of the Crown. Lord, hear us.” A young woman from the Royal Irish regiment, with a clear Northern Irish accent, read, “For nations, peoples, and communities divided or at war, and for people of conscience and goodwill, of all faiths or none, who strive after peace and the flourishing of humanity, Lord hear us.”
This puts me in mind of the text on the Commonwealth Memorial Gates by the Nigerian poet Ben Okri, “Our Future is Greater Than Our Past.” Let us hope so, but it’s up to us now.