Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Not a lot about breastfeeding and a lot about patriotism.

What glorious weather we are having here in beautiful Britain.  At long last I am worrying about whether the kids have had enough to drink or whether they have got enough sun lotion on rather than if they are wearing enough layers.  Sunday's summer sun made the perfect setting for the 'Deal Bandstand Memorial Concert' which commemorates the tragic death of 11 Royal Marine musicians as a result of an IRA attack on the Royal Marines School of Music building in 1989.  The roads close, the locals swarm Walmer green and are beautifully entertained for the afternoon.  The culmination is a performance by HM Royal Marines Collingwood band themselves.

The music was wonderful, not least because I am a big fan of the whole marching drummers moustache sticks thing. Towards the end a priest mounted the steps of the bandstand.  Prayers were said.  Then a lone brass player stood and played that eerie tune 'The last Post'.  As the sound system clicked off we all continued to stand there.  Thousands of us gazing at that monument, the Deal bandstand, in complete silence.  So very, very powerful.  After a few minutes the gentle music began again and the atmosphere was stunning.

Things like this cannot fail to bring a lump to my throat.  Why?  Is it because I am a sap?  No, it's because I am a military girl.  I wasn't in the military myself, but I come from a military family, its something that runs in my veins.  My father served for 15 years in the Royal Navy.  I was raised on stories about naval life and speaking fluent Naval slang (something about nets over the funnels was talked about a lot).  In fact most men from my dad's family seem to have served, except my generation.  I flirted with the idea myself but never took the plunge.  It seemed like too big a commitment and there was of course the chance that a bullet somewhere might have had my name on it.

I think every family has it's legends, but mine, by default of being mine, are special.  My great, great, granddad, George Henry Wright, must be the subject of my favourite family story. In fact the story of his ships on that fateful morning became the subject of a book called 'Three before Breakfast'. Early one morning, in September 1914 he was aboard a ship, HMS Aboukir.  At 6.20 in the morning the ship was hit by a torpedo, fired by a German U-boat, U-9.  Tragically, the ship was sunk and 527 of her crew drowned.  Not my great, great, granddad.  No, he was fortunate and was picked up by the HMS Hogue. The HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy had come to help the crew of the Aboukir as they believed that she had struck a mine.   I suppose there was a great sense of relief for my great, great grandfather to be out of the water and safely back on board a native ship.  Seeing his crewmates dead or dying and his ship stricken, while he had been saved, is not a feeling one can easily understand, but there must have been some joy and relief.  Until 6.55 when the same U-boat torpedoed HMS Hogue.  Again he was in the water, and again many lives were lost.  Again, George was lucky enough to be picked up.  This time it was the HMS Cressy that rescued him.  I can only imagine how thankful he must have felt to still be alive.  Perhaps until U-9 torpedoed HMS Cressy at 7.20.  I think that when he found himself decidedly damp for a third time he must have felt that it was not his lucky day.  But in truth he was extroadinarily lucky, since he was picked up by a Dutch fishing boat.  The story goes that he forgot his identity for a period when he was taken back to Holland.  Now in those days the crew of  a ship would generally come from one locality.  Obviously, in George's neck of the woods there had been horrendous loss of life.  Over 1500 men had lost their lives in that one morning.  A mass funeral was held for the local young menfolk.  My great grandmother Floss, then a young girl, was left at home.  There was a knock at the door.  She answered to find a strange beardey looking fella...that's right, her daddy, George.  Flossie ran all the way to the church to find her mother.  She flung the doors wide but could only see a sea of black clad persons.  So, she shouted from the door 'Mum!! Dad's come 'ome!!'  The widows turned to see a little girl, overjoyed that her dad was no longer the subject of this particular mourning.

I love that story.  How happy my relatives must have been that their dear George wasn't dead.  How happy George himself must have been to not be dead.  His son, Charlie, was not so lucky.  He died in the trenches at Anzio beachhead, Italy, in 1944, aged just 22.  A photograph portrait of him in uniform hung in his sister Floss' house and now on the wall of her daughter, my grandmother, his niece. Surrounded by ship's crests, a newspaper clipping about the sinking of the Aboukir, and faded pictures of men in uniform it has a single poppy placed on top of the frame.  He died 69 years ago, but we haven't forgotten.

My paternal grandfather, Charles Henry 'Harry' Sartain did his stint in the Navy. He was a real stereotype matelow, I remember him smoking his pipe with anchor tattoos on his forearms.  His best tattoo read 'Homward Bound'.  Despite his appearance, he only served for around 2 or 3 years.

These were young men signing up.  My dad himself was just 15 when he joined up.  15 and going off, possibly to war!  He was fortunate to have not seen any serious conflict during his time, but nonetheless, how brave he was to leave his family behind and join this legacy of men who sometimes died for their country.  How his parents and sisters must have felt to see him go and wonder if he would come back.  For 15 years he served his country, finally being discharged as a Chief Petty Officer, having also been a ship's diver during his career.

That's what I think when I attend commemorative functions.  I think of the people.  I think of those who are lucky enough to survive the military and how fortunate I was that my father was one of them.  I also think of the young, fit personnel who are lost.  The families left behind.  They took huge risk because they believed in something enough. Or because they had no choice.  Or because it's just what you do, with a stiff upper lip.

Those 11 men killed in Deal weren't even at war.  They were in their home country and yet they were still attacked because of the position they held.   Just like that poor soldier, another musician, Lee Rigby recently.  Although for those that loved them, no concert will ever fix the hole they left, it surely must go some way to saying 'we haven't forgotten them'.  We honour these people who have lost their lives protecting our country.  I feel that while we remember them, while we gather on a green and stand in grave silence, we will do whatever is in our powers to stop unnecessary wastes of life.  We will deplore such behaviour and we will support those left behind.

My son had no idea.  He was wearing no trousers and trying to make himself dizzy.  I looked at his little innocent frame and felt so overwhelmingly sad for him.  One of our fish died the other day and he keeps asking where its gone.  I don't want to tell him the truth, I just tell him that it was ill.  I don't want my son to learn about the horror in this world.  Worst of all I don't want him to march off to war.  I want him forever to be that carefree little lad who got a bit of grass stuck in his eyelashes during the two minutes silence so that we had to break the spell that was holding us and deal with him.

The band lifted the melancholy spirits with a rousing rendition of 'Rule Brittannia' followed by 'Land of Hope and Glory'.  The crowd went wild, waving their miniature union flags (no, it's not a union jack unless flown from the jack staff of a ship).  One wonderful old lady was wearing union flag leggings and T-shirt and was brandishing a union flag umbrella and tiny flag.  People danced and sang, furiously waving their miniature flags, believing passionately in this funny little island.  My daughter quietly breastfed, gazing at me with curiosity as to what was going on.  I am glad I live in a land that has days like this.  Sunny days.  Days of remembering important things.  Days of preserving innocence.  Days of mad, dancing people in red, white and blue.  Days of breastfeeding surrounded by thousands of people and knowing that sometimes there are bigger and more important things to worry about than whether anybody looks askance at me today.

My favourite hymn was played today.  Read the beautiful words and think awhile of those who take a risk for our country.  Forget a moment any political leaning you have and just admire their bravery and empathise with their fears and those of their families.  Lest we Forget.

Eternal Father, Strong to save (for those at peril on the sea)
William Whiting, 1860

Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm doth bind the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea!
O Saviour, whose almighty word, the winds and waves submissive heard,
Who walkedst on the foaming deep, and calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea!
O sacred Spirit, who didst brood, upon the chaos dark and rude,
Who bad’st its angry tumult cease, and gavest light and life and peace:
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea!
O Trinity of love and power, our brethren shield in danger's hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe, protect them wheresoe'er they go;
And ever let there rise to Thee , glad hymns of praise from land and sea

For George Henry Wright, who somehow didn't die at sea
For Charles E. Wright, who went to Anzio aged 22 and never came home
For Charles Henry Sartain who lost his battle with cancer in 1998
For the Deal 11 and for Drummer Lee Rigby
For all the brave men and women who risk their lives in the armed forces.
For their families who are left behind.

There, your names are in black and white, just as they should be.


  1. What a beautifully well written article. How nice that someone opened their heart and pen to share the deep feelings and support for the men and women who protect us from evil people in this world.
    Thank you.

  2. Please send this to the Deal Memorial committee Emma. I'm sure they will appreciate it. You have a talent for writing - use it!!