Last year we remembered the 100th anniversary of the start to World War 1 – the war that was to end all wars. London became a focal point as the art installation at the Tower of London slowly caught the public attention and eventually their heart as poppy by poppy was planted, turning into a sea of red. One for each life lost, eventually the last of the 888,246 ceramic flowers was planted a year ago today on Remembrance Day (Armistice Day, or in the States, Veteran’s Day).
As I tell in Finding Myself in Britain, we visited the Tower on that Remembrance Sunday – we and a few thousand others. Though we only gazed at the sea of red for a short time, jostled by the crowds, the sight moved us. Not least because 152 of those poppies stood for men whose names appear on the two war memorials in our church.
Nicholas and PyelotBoy, lovers of history both, dug up information about these men on the memorials, scouring websites about ancestry and that of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for clues. What were the backgrounds and interests of these men? How did they die? Our intrepid researchers even took a field trip to the London Metropolitan Archives to search out the original church documents and revel in such items as the 1920 invoice for our church’s north transept stained-glass window, entitled “Saints in Glory,” installed to commemorate the fallen soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
On Remembrance Sunday, both last year and this year, at our church a group of people young and old read out the 152 names, while members of the congregation placed a poppy for each person at the foot of the cross. Direct descendants of the men on the memorial were invited to the service – some came from Sussex, Kent, and even Australia – as well as the occupants of the homes where the men lived before going to war.
All this research brought home the personal nature of the sacrifice of these men. No longer were they just statistics of those who died, but fathers, brothers, sons, husbands; writers and bricklayers, police constables and trainee architects, dentists and regulars in the military; two men who died in the same German prison camp; at least three sets of brothers. The youngest man was aged 17, the eldest 48.
I told the story last year of one of the men, who captured my imagination. Frederick Goodyear, who was born locally in North Finchley and who died at the age of 30 in France. I had included his story in my book in an early draft, but alas, it got chopped at the cutting table as it changed the flow and tone too much. Still, a fascinating thing to enter into his life – a dreamer who would have been better suited to the academy than as life as a soldier.
We will remember.