Reflecting on the Cenotaph, 11 November 2016

This year’s remembrance commemoration saw the usual round of well-worn media debates on whether people should wear a poppy, what colour it should be : red or white or purple (for animals in war), and from what date it should be worn, the 23rd October or 1st November.

The media event which caused the most controversy, comedy or concern, depending on your point of view, was when the Cookie Monster, star of the children’s TV programme Sesame Street, appeared on the BBC’s One Show wearing a poppy. For some, this was evidence the BBC was ‘trivialising sacrifice of millions’ but for others it was proof of the Corporation’s overbearing ‘poppy fascism’. While this media circus generates more heat than light, it does point to an important question; why and how do we commemorate those who fought in national wars?

I have been an active member of The Western Front Association since 2004, and I am proud to wear a poppy and this year helped organise The WFA service at the Cenotaph.

Like millions of others, my motivations for wearing the poppy are focused on the experience and service of relatives who fought in the Great War. I remember my grandfathers, both of whom joined up in 1914/15, served in the army and survived the war. As this year’s centenary service remembered the events of 1916, it was to the memory of my paternal grandfather that was at the forefront of my thoughts as it was on the Somme that he first saw action. As the ceremony progressed, I made a series of poignant personal connections between the words and sights of the occasion and the active service of my grandfather in France over a century ago.

My paternal grandfather was Leonard Thorpe who joined the 1/13 Battalion, London Regiment in April 1915, aged 17, a year under the legal age for enlistment. The unit he enlisted in was also known as the Kensingtons and was a predominantly working class Territorial Force battalion based in the posh Royal Borough of Kensington. Leonard went to France on 2nd September 1915. In February 1916, the Kensingtons were placed in 168 Brigade, 56th Division, with other London Regiment infantry formations including the first battalion of the London Scottish.

The first connection I made between my grandfather’s service and the Cenotaph service was on seeing the pipes and drums of the London Scottish, who led the parade of The WFA members, wreath layers and VIPs to their positions for the commemoration. The pipes and drums looked amazing dressed in their Hodden Grey kilts and (real) leopard skins. My grandfather would have seen similar sights in France as the Kensingtons and London Scottish frequently marched past each other and participated together in brigade sports meetings and other events. I was deeply impressed by the band’s regal display of martial bearing but wondered what my grandfather would have thought. The Kensingtons and London Scottish had a fierce rivalry when training in England during 1915 and the London Scottish regarded themselves as socially superior to other London Regiment battalions. They demanded that the volunteers who joined their ranks be middle class professional men, of ‘Scottish heritage’ (no longer required) and able to pay a £1 annual fee (about 2% of the then average wage). I speculated whether my grandfather would have regarded them with the same awe as I did as he was a working class Kilburn youth who would never have been of the ‘right stamp’ or ‘breeding’ to be accepted into their ranks!

We then had the two minute silence during which my thoughts turned to my grandfather’s friend, Lance Corporal Cyril Guy Battiscombe, who was killed on the 1st July 1916 during the 56th Division’s attack on Gommecourt. Battiscombe had given my grandfather a signed portrait of himself with ‘yours sincerely, C.G. Battiscombe, 28 August 1915’ penned in the corner. This date was four days before both of them deployed to France and the signed photograph was stuck into my grandfather’s post-war scrap book. The relationship between Battiscombe and my grandfather would have been considered unusual by prewar Edwardian standards. Battiscombe was the son of a Kent vicar and had a solid professional career as a telegraph instructor for the Eastern Telegraph Company. In contrast, my grandfather was an ex-policeman from a family of nine who lived in an inner city slum. Class conventions of the time would have frowned on such a friendship but wartime army life destroyed such pre-war social etiquette. During the silence, I wondered what had happened to Battiscombe. On the 1st July he was a runner and was reported to have ‘disappeared’ while taking a message from his company commander. He is commemorated with 72,245 other men on the Theipval Memorial to the ‘missing’.

Following the silence, Brother Nigel Cave read the prayers. As part of his address, he listed some of the key battles of 1916, including those of the Somme. Two of these were Gommecourt (July 1916) and Le Transloy Ridges (October 1916), in which both my grandfather and the Kensingtons had fought. To many people these were names but to me they were personal. Though we can never know what it was like to be ‘there’, historical research can shed some light on what happened and what men ‘experienced’. I have done extensive research into the Kensingtons’ history in preparation for a battalion narrative, that I am currently writing, and as part of my recent Phd, which I have just submitted. The action at Gommecourt on 1st July was ghastly, bloody and a largely pointless affair and it only lasted one long sunny day; the actions on the Le Transloy were very different. They were a series of attritional slugging matches fought in rain, cold and mud, when men remained in the line for weeks on end fighting through Leuze Wood, Bordeaux Wood and towards Les Boeufs. As Brother Cave uttered the name of the Le Transloy Ridges, I remembered accounts I had read that recalled the conditions in which soldiers had lived, fought and died. One account described the constant stream of wounded as a ‘never ending procession of pain’. John Tucker recalled that, while fighting for Leuze and Borleaux Woods, there were no rats or birds present, the shell fire, he believed, too much for ‘them to endure’.

The Cenotaph was erected to the dead of the Great War. Cenotaph means ’empty tomb’ and symbolised the unprecedented losses suffered during that war. There are no names inscribed upon it, which allowed individuals to assign their own meaning to the memorial. My thoughts on that cold November day, as I stood before it, were not only about those that had died in the Great War, notably Battiscombe, but those who had returned, like my grandfather. It is important that we remember those who came back, what they may have experienced during the war and the pain, physical, mental or moral, they may have carried as a result of their experience of that conflict. There are many memorials to the dead but too few to the survivors. While, we must remember those who gave their lives, it is also imperative that we not forget those who returned.