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Armistice Day – through the eyes of an 8 year old choirboy

I think that of all the services I took part in, the one I always found most moving, the one I loved best, was the Armistice Day Sunday. Several of the choirmen were ex-servicemen from the Great War. I think one had lost a leg and another was on sticks as a result of his wounds.
It was on this day that those in the congregation who’d served during that first holocaust proudly wore their medals, polished & burnished, shining & clinking as they moved. What a pageant of sight, sound and colour, as behind the flags and banners, they walked to lay them upon the altar to be blessed.
Widows and mothers could be seen wearing medals and Orders awarded to men who’d never lived to wear them; kept in drawers all year through and brought out, polished and wept over, as memories returned of what might have been. The whole nation wept for its dead. They were in the majority; they would never have the peace of mind knowing where their loved one was buried. So many like our Mam’s eldest brother who was blown to pieces.
On the positive side, so much grief and pride was generated that even we little boys in the choir stood stiffly to attention like guardsmen as, at the end of the two minute silence signalled by a distant gun or Maroon on a nearby park, the trumpeter, strategically placed within the church, sobbed out the heartbreak of the Last Post.
Standing there, trying to keep my gaze forward, I would nevertheless allow my side vision to present to me a picture of the whole church, ablaze with the predominately red poppies, the flags and the standards. I would then see, as though through a dark glass, the strained and haggard faces of the medal bedecked ex-servicemen, many missing arms and legs, some with some of their faces masked off with pieces of felt to hide the horror beneath. I would see the tears coursing down so many faces; tears with which my own contributed. The nation grieved, and I was proud to grieve too. Little did we know that within three years or less the carnage of war would recommence.
In those days the build up to 11am was palpable. In schools and colleges bells would be set ringing, calling the classes to a central hall. In the factories, the workers would set their eyes to the clock. Those with medals had them close to hand. Cubs, Guides, Scouts and Brownie uniforms were decorated with red poppies. As the hands of the clock moved inexorably towards the hour, the processions formed up ready to move off after the two minutes’ silence. Beautifully groomed horses, brushed until their coats shone, tossed their heads restlessly and champed at the bit, pawing at the ground whilst harnesses creaking leather against leather shone as those on the battlefield horses never shone.
Did Christ on His Cross suffer as did they whose names were scribed on those all too familiar War Memorials up and down the country suffer? With the deepest respect, I doubt it. Here a man, there a woman, even children overcome with the build-up of tension and emotion fell, fainting stiffly down, as so many others had fallen into eternity at Ypres, Passchendaele and on the Somme. There, a woman, a mother, broke down and wept unashamedly as realisation, yet again, reminded her that medals and certificates from an alleged grateful nation can never fill an empty chair. Is it time? Not yet; nearly.
The towns, villages and Hamlets held their breath. Men going about their business in the streets took out watches, held them to the ear, shook them; others took out medal clasps and pinned them on self-consciously. Some looked for clocks on public buildings or called, ‘what’s the time, mate?’ House doors opened as men, women (some with a baby in their arms) came to stand half in, half out of the door, many shedding the first tears.
Those streets that had wayside shrines screwed to a wall, shrines that bore those names of the fallen from that street which were lovingly cared for, each had a shelf upon which most days of the year could be found a small meat paste tin or similar receptacle into which a few posies or wild flowers were placed. These have now been taken down and lost although one of the original shrines, circa 1914, can be found at the church at Queniborough. These shrines became a gathering point as neighbours called back to mind a familiar face of but a few years ago. Now, with only seconds left to the eleventh hour, tramcars and buses just stopped, even if by doing so a road or turn was blocked, for it mattered not; everything else was at a standstill.
A dull ‘crump’, a quick siren blast, a field gun discharged. A clock would begin to chime the hour. Gentlemen had already removed their hats; tram and bus drivers and passengers had already left the vehicle and stood in silence. Caught up in the emotion, some men forgot to remove their hat and, if witnessed, someone else, a complete stranger, would snatch the hat from the offender’s head and throw it to the floor knowing this was the one time retribution would not follow.
That silence, lasting for the two prescribed minutes, was emotionally terrible. I can think of no other way to describe it. I swear even birds stopped singing. As the world stood still, those who’d been sacrificed were remembered. Not a man was forgotten. Those two minutes lasted into eternity.
Finally, the Maroons sounded again. Hats were replaced; buses and trams moved off; the crowds dispersed.
For those two minutes the dead came back to life. They were paraded before us as we saluted them and then they went back to wherever they’d been before we called them.
I was to read much later that the number plate of the car in which the Archduke Franz Joseph and his Morganic wife were travelling when they were assassinated in Sarajevo, was 11.11.18! The hour, the month and even the year that terrible war ended.

(Norman: Through My Eyes. A social and personal history of Leicester – Amazon)

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