It’s nearly time. We have been chatting and exchanging greetings, some catching up for the first time since last year. We face the memorial on the hill, the other side of the muddy, swollen river, bulked by recent rain. The Parade Marshal comes to attention, his pace stick tucked tightly under his right arm. He looks left then right.
‘Parade… Parade, shun!’
Aged limbs force themselves into the position of attention. Our minds go back thirty or forty years, many more in some cases. We’re instantly transported back to the hated parade squares of our younger days. Men from all walks of life and from many civilian professions drawn together on this single day. Having first met at school then served together in the colours through thick and thin, many remain lifelong friends. Each year this becomes harder, but we’ll always do it for them. The ones who never returned. The parade marshal waits patiently, eyeing the whole parade. The waiting public are silent too.
A voice rings out…
‘They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.’
‘We will remember them,’ we echo.
We will, too. Every year. The bugler mournfully sounds the Last Post. Wind buffets the assembled parade as the standards are slowly lowered. Dust and sand whips into our eyes but we remain stock still. Various dignitaries stand to attention by the memorial on the distant hill, long coats flapping in the wind. The final sad notes of the Last Post drift away on the wind. Each lost in our own particular thoughts, we remember fallen comrades. Sadly, or perhaps luckily, there are none left who remember the stark horrors of the First World War, but Afghanistan, the Gulf, the Balkans, the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Aden, Borneo, Cyprus, Suez, Korea, Palestine, Dhofar, Brunei and, of course, the Second World War are just some of the campaigns where we have lost good friends. Friends we trusted with our lives, who trusted us but are sadly absent today. Many of us have moist eyes at this stage, painful memories forever present. Reveille brings each of us from our reverie. The standards are raised. We remain proudly at attention while the dignitaries solemnly lay wreaths at the foot of the memorial. It is cold in the biting wind but we don’t care. We can still feel the cold wind, unlike those we are here to remember.
The Parade Marshal reacts to the barely visible signal from the top of the hill.
‘The parade will move to the right in threes, RIGHT turn.’
The sound of many feet stamping on the cold tarmac rings out.
‘By the left. Quick march!’
The three deep beats of the bass drum echo between the buildings behind us as we step off behind the band. We march in perfect time along the centre of the road, now thankfully bereft of traffic. Each man concentrates on keeping his position and distance from the men around him. Townsfolk line our route, applauding as we hold our heads high. Many wear shiny medals, clinking as they march, some have none but today we’re all the same. Many units are represented by the multitude of cap badges, Royal Navy, Marines, Fleet Air Arm, infantry, paratroopers, tank regiments, engineers, RAF, all marching side by side. At the front our standard bearers struggle but cope admirably despite the buffeting wind. We keep the step well as we march past shops and pubs, swinging our arms high. Not bad for old guys.
‘Left, right. Left, right. Left, right leeeft…’
The Parade Marshal calls out the step. We dig our heels in, proud to be marching again, our training kicking in automatically, even after all these years. I worry my beret may blow off as we turn a corner into the wind, but all is well. We’re far from the majority of the public now. A glimpse to my right catches people crowding across the small bridge towards the church. A snatch of conversation catches on the wind, followed by a ripple of laughter in the ranks. Someone cracked a joke. It would never have been allowed when we were serving. The sense of humour is one of the things that keeps us all together. Once you have served, no matter where or who with, you will always understand that sense of humour. It can never be equalled.
Eventually we arrive outside the church. Some of us, not used to the exertion, are breathing heavily.
We come to a halt as one, banging our feet down in unison. Again, we stand stock still.
‘To the church… Fall out!’
We turn to the right, take three short, sharp paces then head for the church door en-masse. The veterans sit right at the front. The rest of the parade files in behind. Serving personnel, army cadets, the RAFA, the Fire and Rescue Service, the Coastguard, the RNLI, the SLSC, the scouts and guides.
Once everyone is seated the service begins. The minister welcomes us and the sermon begins. It gets the message across whilst also being entertaining. Wars cause untold stress and suffering, but many have no choice about becoming involved. The names of the fallen are projected onto the end wall of the church, scrolling down slowly. Sadly, it is far too long. Hymns are sung and passages are read. Reveille again follows the Last Post and two minute’s silence. The Kohima Epitaph moves me as much as the verse from Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen.’
When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today.
The service ends after the National Anthem and we slowly file out of the church. Again, we form up in three ranks, then proudly march away from the church, before halting and falling out on the wharf. The bitter wind gusts hard, as we silently head for the pub. We are applauded in by the army cadets, a nice touch. Solemn and thoughtful we nod to each other and drinks are ordered. We slowly begin to chat and catch up with people we haven’t spoken to for a while. Sharing memories of our younger days, we raise a glass to old friends. Those no longer with us.
At the going down of the sun, we WILL remember them…