The Last Post always brings tears to my eyes, and not just because it was played by a bugler at my Dad’s funeral. Remembrance Day was an important time of year for Dad. In the photograph, framed in black slate, that looks at me as I type he is wearing a poppy in his British Legion beret. It was taken by a Mercury photographer to illustrate an article about him selling poppies in Lewisham a few years before he died. Another picture shows him standing proudly to attention as the standard bearer holding the Light Infantry Association standard at a remembrance parade at the Chelsea Barracks.
Heroes Corner, in Greenwich Cemetery, is the area where 263 of the 556 First World War graves in the cemetery are located. As the Commonwealth War Graves Commission describes it:
“Greenwich Cemetery contains 556 First World War burials. More than half of these graves are scattered throughout the cemetery, but 263 form a large war graves plot known as ‘Heroes’ Corner’. Here, two curved screen walls bear the names of casualties buried both in the plot and in unmarked graves in the cemetery. The Second World War plot adjoins and contains 75 graves. An additional screen wall commemorates casualties buried in this plot and ten others buried in unmarked graves elsewhere in the cemetery. In all, the cemetery contains 124 Second World War burials, 3 of which are unidentified British soldiers. Section E contains a plot of 30 Norwegian service graves from the Second World War.”
The tragedy of the First World War is compounded by the courageous futility of mass charges against artillery and machine guns. My favourite poet, Wilfred Owen, captures the gritty reality and sadness, and also seems to express some of the anger we feel today at the waste of a generation.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.
The close relationship between Shooters Hill and the armed forces is epitomised by the monumental architecture of the cluster of military-related buildings around Woolwich Common – now the site of the shooting stadium for the 2012 Olympics. Close to the Greenwich Cemetery there is the former Royal Herbert Hospital, then the former military academy and of course the Woolwich Barracks. Nearby stands the ruin of St George’s Garrison Church, with its Victoria Cross memorial. Further up Shooters Hill is the Memorial Hospital.
Responsibility for raising the money to build the War Memorial Hospital was the role of the Remembrance Committee at the end of the First World War. They did this largely through public subscription, for example all the staff of the Woolwich Arsenal agreed to have a shilling a month deducted from their pay to contribute to the cost. The hospital was opened on the 2nd November 1927 by HRH the Duke of York, who also planted the Lawson Cypress that still stands in front of the hospital. The heart of the hospital is the Hall of Remembrance where two books of remembrance lie open, commemorating local servicemen and civilians killed in the two world wars. A page is turned every day. Yesterday the civilian pages included records of six deaths in Red Lion Lane on the 19th October 1940 and deaths in Eglinton Road on 15th October 1940.
And the heroism and sacrifice has continued since the second world war: Malaya – 40 British service personnel killed; Cyprus – over 105 killed; Korea – 765 killed; Aden – 68; The Balkans – 48; Kuwait – 47; Falklands – 255; Northern Ireland 719; Iraq – 179; Afghanistan – 382. The last post has been sounded too many times.
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.
From Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen”.