Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Remembering the Brave

I returned home this evening after taking a short break from election campaigning to visit London for a ceremony which directly commemorated sixty-four very brave men and implicitly the sacrifice of many thousands.

Today was commemorated in Australia and New Zealand as ANZAC day, remembering the sacrifice of the brave soldiers from Australia and New Zealand in two world wars and particularly in the Gallipoli campaign.

It is not a coincidence that it was also chosen for the unveiling, by Field Marshall the Duke of Kent, of a memorial outside Freemasons' Hall in Covent Garden to the Freemasons who were awarded the Victoria Cross during World War one.

The campaign in which the brave soldiers from Australia and New Zealand paid such a heavy price also saw great courage and sacrifice from other parts of the British Empire including Lancashire, the county which was home to my parents and grandparents.

On the day of the Gallipoli landings which was chosen in Australia and New Zealand to mark ANZAC day, men from Lancashire also fought bravely and at terrible cost, and six men from the 1st Battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers, later known as the "six before breakfast" VCs, were awarded   Britain's highest award for bravery for a single action, the landings on "W" beach. Two of those six were freemasons. I will return to the Lancashire Fusiliers in a moment, but let me say something about the people who were honoured today.

Freemasons' Hall was built between the wars and dedicated to the memory of more than three thousand freemasons who were killed on active service during the series of conflicts which were known at the time simply as "The Great War" and are now usually referred to as "The First World War."

An enormous proportion of Britain's young men served during that war, including many thousands of masons. Half a million of them lost their lives. Thousands of men and women were decorated for bravery: for every one of those who were awarded a medal there were undoubtedly many who also showed great bravery but who, perhaps because there was nobody senior there to see it or because all those who might have borne witness were killed, did not receive such a commemoration. For that reason I think we should regard the decorations given  for bravery in war partly as commemorating the courage shown by everyone who served. Nevertheless I don't think that anyone who reads the citations of those who were awarded the VC for valour during World War One can doubt that each describes acts of extraordinary bravery.

Sixty-four names are recorded as part of the memorial unveiled today, these being the names of those freemasons who were members of lodges affiliated to the United Grand Lodge of England and Wales and who were awarded the Victoria Cross during World War One. At least two of these were from lodges in Cumberland (I refer to the historic county rather than the modern one because Cumbria did not exist in the early 20th century.)

These were George Harry Wyatt of the Sun Square and Compasses Lodge (which I was representing at the ceremony today) and Tom Fletcher Mayson of Whitwell Lodge.

I looked up the story of George Wyatt before attending the ceremony. He was born in Worcester in 1886, enlisted in the Coldstream Guards in November, 1904, and served in Egypt for two and a half years, after which he left the army and married a girl from the Kells area of Whitehaven called Ellen Graham, who was a coal miner's daughter, in 1912. They had two children.

On the outbreak of the First World War he recalled to the Coldstream Guards and went to France with them as part of the initial British Expeditionary Force, the "Old Contemptibles." George Wyatt was awarded the Victoria Cross for extreme bravery in the fighting following the battle of Mons, described in his citation as follows:
"For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. At Landrecies, on the night of 25th-26th August, 1914, when a part of his Battalion was hotly engaged at the end of a street close to some farm buildings, the enemy, by means of incendiary bombs, set light to some straw stacks in the farmyard. Lance-Corporal Wyatt twice dashed out of the line under very heavy fire from the enemy, who were only 25 yards distant, and extinguished the burning straw. If the fire had spread it would have been quite impossible to have held our position.

"Also at Villa Cotteret, after being wounded in the head, Lance-Corporal Wyatt continued firing until he could no longer see owing to the blood which was pouring down his face. The Medical Officer bound up his wound and told him to go to the rear, but he at once returned to the firing-line and continued to fight."

George Wyatt was promoted to lance-sergeant and survived the war. He died at the age of 77 in 1964. After the war he, was interviewed about winning the Victoria Cross, describing the events as follows:

"Well, there's not much for me to say about it. I just did as I was told. During the retirement from Mons the 3rd Coldstream Guards reached Landrecis. It was dark at the time, and there we were attacked by a large number of Germans who must have been rushed up in motor lorries. We lost our machine-gun, and had to rely solely upon rifle and bayonet. Suddenly something flared up between us and the enemy, and Major Matheson shouted, "Put out that light". So I did it. I never thought it would bring me the Victoria Cross. How did I put the fire out? Oh, I jumped on it and dragged some equipment over it. After a while it burst out again, and I ran back and extinguished it. Yes, there was heavy fire from the Germans when I first obeyed the order. That affair at Villers Cotterets. I got hit on the head and went on firing. That's all" Like many of the bravest men, George Wyatt was obviously very modest about the courage he had shown.

It was said during today's ceremony that practically every family in Britain had someone at the front during the Great War and that was certainly true of my own family: my grandfather and his brother both served. My grandfather came back: his brother didn't. Which brings me back to the Lancashire Fusiliers.

Today's ceremony would have been, I think, very powerful for anyone to listen to but I was particular moved by it because of the references to "W" beach at Gallipoli, a hundred and two years ago today.

My father and grandfather came from Darwen, a small town in Lancashire. The war memorial in Darwen, situated in Bold Venture park which is over the road from the house where my father grew up, does not bear a list of names of those killed.

That is because too many people of the town were killed for their names to fit on a war memorial of normal size:

The Lancashire Fusiliers, to whom the "six VC's before breakfast" were awarded on this day in 1915,  lost more than seven hundred men killed or wounded that day out of a thousand and twenty-nine who boarded the landing boats. I have not been able to establish this as a fact, but I suspect that some of them may have been among the 1,200 citizens of Darwen who are commemorated on the Bold Venture Park memorial shown above.

The Lancashire Fusiliers was also the regiment in which my grandfather's brother,  Fusilier Robert Whiteside, subsequently enlisted and in which he was serving when he was mortally wounded at the age of 18, just six weeks before the end of the war.

The American Civil War general, Robert E Lee, once said that:

I have been fortunate enough never to have been within hundreds of miles of a battle. But as my son grows closer and closer to the age at which my great-uncle was cut down it grows clearer and clearer to me what Robert E Lee meant.

It is very important that we never forget the heroism and bravery of the men who were honoured today and all the other men and women who have risked and often lost their lives serving our country. It is also very important that we remember the cost of war.

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