“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Friday, 13 March 2015

Ways of Remembrance

Earlier this week, my husband and I visited the National Memorial Arboretum, near Lichfield. I had had qualms about doing this, as I had expected it to be very much about "remembering our glorious dead", which as a pacifist, I struggle with.

But how wrong I was. We arrived about quarter to two, having spent the morning in Lichfield, and saw on the notices that there is a daily talk in the chapel at 2.00 pm. So we hung around the gift shop for a few minutes, where you could hardly move for things with red poppies on, and then headed over to the chapel.

Outside the door, there was a beautiful prayer for a better world, written by a 13 year old named Anna Crompton, which was not what I had been expecting. Here are the words:

The NMA volunteer told us a little about the history of the place, and about some particular memorials to look out for. And then we were free to wander as we willed.

Like most folk, we headed first for the main Armed Forces Memorial, which commemorates all the service men and women who have given their lives for their country since 1945 - since we have been "at peace". It consists of four concentric half circles, two on each side, and the names are arranged in chronological order, and then by service. So for each year, there is the list of names for Army, Navy, and Air Force. It has been designed so that on 11th November each year, the light of the sun focuses directly on it at 11.00 am. I found three things very poignant:

1. they have used up 227 panels so far, in the years since 1945.
2. there is a lot of blank wall left for future deaths.
3. to spot the name of Private Lee Rigby among the dead in 2013.

I felt tears pricking my eyes for the first time.

Then we wandered fairly randomly, stopping to look at whatever attracted our attention. One of the first I saw was a memorial to all the Jews who have laid down their lives for their country - Britain, not Israel. It had been dedicated a few years previously "350 years after Jews were readmitted to England", which I found terribly sad.

One thing I had spotted in the list of memorials on the map we had bought was a memorial to the Quaker Friends Relief Service, so we headed out to find it. When we got there, I was so filled with joy. It takes the form of four high-backed, stone settles, arranged in a loose circle, so that one could have a meeting for worship right there. On the facing part of each settle, the Quaker values of Peace, Simplicity, Truth and Equality are engraved, one on each.

There was also a beautiful memorial for individuals, divided into twelve monthly sections. Any family can buy an eternal poppy, and add the name of their loved one to the display. I found this really moving.

Of course, most of the memorials were military, and it was fascinating to see how beautiful and appropriate most of them were. The Signals Corps had a statue of Mercury, the Royal Welsh a great slab of Welsh slate, the Navy one of different colours of blue glass/perspex with a yellow panel representing the rising sun and an orange panel representing the setting sun, and so on. But there were also other memorials for those who had played supporting roles in times of conflict - the Women's Land Army, Bevin's Boys, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and memorials for dogs and horses, who had also given their lives.

As the afternoon wore on, we got tired, and headed back to the Visitor Centre for coffee and cake. And then realised that we hadn't seen a couple of memorials that the guide at the beginning had particularly mentioned, so we set out again. And I am so very glad that we did.

On the way, we came across one of the newest memorials, to the service personnel who had lost their lives in Iraq. And that was so sad to see. And then on to the lovely memorial for all the thousands of Poles who had given their lives for the Allied cause in World War II, when their own country didn't exist any more.

And we also came across some beautiful gardens of remembrance which had nothing to do with war at all - any member of the public can subscribe to buy a tree to remember a loved one. And there was one terribly sad section of trees dedicated to babies "born sleeping", or who had lived only a few days. And I saw one tree with two signs, for a husband and wife, who had died within eleven months of each other.

But not all the individual trees commemorated a death - one sign I saw celebrated a 65th wedding anniversary - how lovely!

Finally, we came to the new Shot At Dawn memorial, which is set in a corner of the 150 acre site, so that it is the first point to be touched by the light of dawn each day. It commemorates the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were shot for cowardice or desertion during World War I. It consists of a single statue depicted with his hands tied behind his back, and a blindfold on, and behind him, the 306 individual stakes, each with a name. Once again, I was in tears.

And there was so much we didn't see. The NMA's strapline is "Where our nation remembers", and it is certainly that. I thought back to our morning visit to Lichfield Cathedral, with its memorials to the war dead of Staffordshire, and the long entombed bishops, and reflected on how life has changed. Today we commemorate our dead with living trees, in a secular, but most sacred, setting.

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