There they stand. A lonely but proud little company now, living on the memories of a past long gone. Their numbers are fewer as they gather each year to remember those comrades who will forever stay young while they, the survivors, age and weary.
Pride shines in the lined faces of these men and women. Pride in the fact that they did their bit when it was called for, that they stood with their comrades against a common foe. But it is a pride laced with sorrow as they gaze up at the list of names before them, set in bronze on the cold grey granite of the obelisk, surmounted by a beautifully carved soldier in full fighting gear. His first-world-war uniform is old fashioned even to the group of second war veterans before him, but his message is clear as he stands, head held high and rifle at the ready.
Tightly knit and shoulder-to-shoulder as they were so many years ago, this small band may in this singular moment seem lonely and forlorn, but this would be a false image. For all around them stand ranks of ordinary people, some much too young to have any recollection of the devastation that is being remembered, watching the group with affection and pride. Others there obviously do remember. They remember fathers, brothers, and uncles who never returned. There are tears pooling within sad eyes and sharply drawn breaths with perhaps just a hint of a quiver or a sigh.
The last post wails its mournful cry, echoing eerily down the quiet street and back again, while fifteen small, grey figures snap smartly to attention. Medals jangle on swelling breasts and boots scrape unmusically on the rough black tarmac as four young soldiers, modern defenders of our way of life, produce a smart salute. Their ‘present-arms’ is accomplished with weapons and drill movements unfamiliar to the old brigade standing before them. In their day it was the .303 calibre Lee-Enfield, solid and reliable, a weapon that looked like a weapon. This is very unlike the small black objects used by the warriors of today; the ones that are bristling with switches and buttons and disturbingly short in the barrel. As the familiar notes play on, a complete silence descends on the watching crowd. Even a little baby curled in its mother’s arm, which had until now been whimpering spasmodically, hungry for an overdue meal, seems to be aware of the importance of the moment and becomes quiet.
A gentle breeze suddenly springs up, rustling the leaves on the surrounding trees and making the freshly laid flowers at the base of the obelisk dance and twinkle in the spring morning sunshine. Women’s dresses stir too in the warm air, and a sheet of newspaper comes dancing down the street as if wanting to join in the moving occasion, only to be trapped against one of the railing posts surrounding the group, where it flaps helplessly trying to escape.
The last notes of the bugle drift away on the morning breeze and shoulders noticeably relax, eyes lose their fevered glow, and shoes mutter on gravel as feet move restlessly. Faces turn towards each other and a soft murmur of voices takes over where the music stops, demonstrating relief that once again the ceremony has gone well, as it unfailingly does every November.
Then it is over and the people disperse. Old soldiers, children, wives, brothers, uncles, and sisters all mingling as one, wondering how many of that little band of ex-servicemen and women will be there again next year, their medals still bright, their memories and their pride still strong, even as their eyes grow dim.
Lest We Forget.