Rememberance exhibits at the NAM
Volume 58, Number 10, November 2020
We will remember them AS we go to press we learn that London has been placed in “Tier 2” on the Government’s Coronavirus table meaning that it is under a raft of new restrictions. These new restrictions include limiting the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph to invited guests only—there will be no march past this year and no public will be in attendance to mark the 100 years since the imposing Portland Stone edifice was officially unveiled in a ceremony on November 11, 1920 that was followed by the internment of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The Cenotaph is, of course, a “national” memorial remembering “our Glorious Dead”, a symbol that is echoed up and down the land with town and village memorials recording the names of local men (and women) who died whilst on active service. These obelisks and crosses, found across the country, are usually referred to as “war memorials” but they don’t just record those killed by enemy action and many will include names of those who died whilst serving no matter what the cause of death; in the same way that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission doesn’t differentiate between someone killed on the First Day of the Somme and someone who died of Spanish Flu in the November of 1918 and just as those who sent out Memorial Plaques to the Next of Kin didn’t differentiate either, and so it should be. The tomb of the Unknown Warrior can be viewed a little differently though, it is very much a memorial to those who fought and died for King and Country and was the brainchild of one Reverend David Railton, a Church of England Minister who had served as a temporary Chaplain to the Forces during World War I and who was awarded the Military Cross in 1916 for saving the lives of three men under heavy fire. It was whilst serving near Armentieres in France that Railton came across the grave of a fallen soldier that bore no details save the inscription “An unknown British Soldier of the Black Watch”. This led the clergyman to wonder just who this soldier was, how old he was, who he had left behind and he began to ask himself how this young man might be remembered. Four years later, with the war over, Railton, now back in a civilian parish, wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, to suggest that there should be some kind of memorial to the fallen in Westminster Abbey. Remembering that grave he saw years before he suggested that burying an “unknown warrior”, someone who had never been identified and who had no other memorial, “to lie amongst kings” would be a fitting tribute and so it was decided to bring back to England the body of a British Serviceman hitherto unidentified and bury him in a special ceremony in Westminster Abbey. The story of how the soldier (or sailor from the Royal Naval Division) was chosen and the subsequent journey to London is a fascinating one and I highly recommend learning more about it if you can (the NAM have an exhibit on at the moment). The idea was that the Unknown Warrior was “everyman”, a symbol of all those whose lives had been cut short by war. His name will never be known and he stands as a symbol for the ages, both everyone and no one. He is remembered precisely because he is anonymous but many are luckier, they are remembered by name because we, as collectors, now hold their medals. Few of us will have known anything about the men and women whose medals we are now custodians of before they joined our collections but I am sure that in most cases that has been remedied and now their memory lives on with us, long after anyone who might have known them has passed on. There will be no public Cenotaph service this year and many of those usually held in parish churches will either be cancelled or severely restricted, so I urge you all, as I did back in May for VE Day, to hold your own personal moment of remembrance for those whose medals you now hold. Regardless of the era to which you collect take a moment to look at the medals you have not just as objects but as part of history, remember those that once owned them, or who never got their chance to wear them, let them know they aren’t forgotten, for we should remember them, we must remember them, we will remember them.
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