This past Sunday, November 10th, Benjamin Roy ‘21 attended the Remembrance Day Ceremonies in Lancaster, UK.
Two old men walked out of the Lancaster City Council building and past me. They both wore bowler hats, regimental ties, a rack of ribboned medals, and pinned down poppies. The taller man, supported by two hiking sticks, said without looking at the other, “pretty good turnout.”
It was a pretty good turnout.
It was incredible to me. There were throngs of people. Young people with dyed hair, and others with slicked back, peaky blinder style, haircuts. Families with dutifully quiet children. Civic-minded grandmothers. And finally, the grand old men and women. Their berets proudly bearing the flashes and badges of the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders, the Royal Irish Rifles, and a singular Scots Guardsman. But there was a quieter, younger sort of veteran as well. Those a little past middle aged, who simply wore their black wool overcoats decorated with medals, and a poppy.
I arrived a few minutes after 11:00 AM and heard the tail-end of a sermon by the local minister, followed by the singing of “God Save the Queen,” during which I felt conspicuously American. After this, the cadets marched into city hall to lay another wreath, and the crowd began to disband and head towards the cafes and pubs in town. I moved against the current of the crowd into the memorial square to get a better look at the monument.
Lancaster’s War Memorial is a long wall of stone that holds a series of bronze plaques, bearing the names of all those who died during the Great War. In the center, a double sized figure of winged victory bears a symbolic laurel of glory. A sobering number of names are bracketed together under the title, “Brothers.” Before the plaques, sits a smaller roll of names in bronze laid atop an empty tomb, memorializing Lancaster’s sacrifice in the Second World War. At the foot of each lay heaped wreaths of plastic poppies, addressed from every prominent civic, business, athletic, and military organization in town.
Other poppies were individually laid. I saw quite a few attached to popsicle stick crucifixes, upon which were written a name and a date. One dated 1917, another 1943, another 2007. A little girl leaned over the heaped wreaths to lay her simple paper poppy at the base of the last plaque on the monument.
Fifteen minutes after the official ceremonies closed, the area around the memorial was mostly cleared, and the cadets and sailors had marched out to form up elsewhere for the parade. The memorial square was nearly empty except for a specific group.
There were the old, and two pairs of parents and children. A mother and her daughter, and a father with his blonde son. The parents brought their quietly observant children to the bronze plaques and gestured to them, said something small I could not hear, and both then looked at the legion of names.
I took my leave when I found myself standing against the fence at the back of the memorial park with only the elderly veterans and their families around their monument. I soon noticed that one, and then two, of the older gentlemen were looking at me. Not with any rancor, or annoyance, just an expectancy of my departure. I took the hint and left, leaving the oldest veterans with names that mean more to them than they will ever mean to me.
I was in the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment Museum in the center Lancaster, when I heard the drums and horns of a parade. I finished my tour and followed the parade back to the memorial.
The sailors of the HMS Lancaster led the parade. They were followed by the various cadets, led by on old soldier of the Scots Guards, who proudly wore the khaki uniform and chequered cap of his regiment. The rear, however, was where the grand old veterans marched. Their arms swung gently, and they wore topped with bowlers and berets, one or two with an umbrella hooked above their elbow and secured beneath their forearm. I have never seen in my brief time in England anything quite as English as this small cadre marching at the rear of this small Remembrance Day parade.
The parade ended again at the memorial square. The cadets dispersed, and the old veterans joined their waiting families.
I was impressed by the turnout, but more by the solemnity of the occasion. All had come to the events of the day with a grave and direct sense of purpose. Even the children (for the most part) preserved a quiet and respectful reverence in imitation of their parents. Veterans and civilians alike observed the day in much the same mood. I noticed a sense of duty, not of compulsion, but thankful payment in part of a debt that can never be satisfied.
I will remember many things from my semester abroad, however, few are so impressive as the sights, sounds, and emotions evoked by the Remembrance Day ceremonies I witnessed at Lancaster.