The rain was perhaps symbolic, I thought. As a group of us stood together, paying our respects to the war veterans at the Quyon War Memorial last Sunday afternoon, a cold drizzle created tiny rivers coursing down my cheeks. Or, were they tears?
In front of the gathering those who had come to honour valour and courage, stood the survivors of the wars. A small handful of veterans proudly stood to attention. Family members and dignitaries were called to lay wreaths at the foot of the memorial. Everyone stood silently, as the chill settled into our bones.
Quyon’s memorial service gave us an opportunity to honour those who gave their lives for us all, a week prior to the “real thing”… that is, before the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
Eric’s thoughts dwelt upon his grandad, a man I never knew, who died in November of 1978 at Shaughnessy Hospital, in a ward. A veteran, Eric and his mother published his memoirs, Memoirs of a Quiet Rebel, a few years back. Told in his own words, his tale is one of hardship and courage, of struggle and perseverance through the Great War and Depression. He fought in the trenches, and, wounded, returned to Canada to farm rough new land in Alberta.
In a few days, we’ll be visiting his home in Reepham, Lincolnshire, England, and sleeping in his old room. Rememberance of his valour and courage are foremost in both Eric’s and my mind, for his memoirs spin an evocative tale of a dignified man’s life.
For me, November 11 always reminds me of my mother and of an uncle I never knew. Proudly displayed in her home stands a fading sepia photograph of Ray Marland, her brother. His image is displayed prominently, surrounded by a host of scarlet poppies.
What a handsome young man! The close-up reveals a smiling, cheerful face. Wearing a WW II leather pilot’s helmet and a jaunty scarf around his neck, he looks confident, kind, like “the boy next door”. A war photograph of a son, especially taken for a mother, so she’ll be reassured.
He was a much-loved brother, a much-loved son. Probably just like the veterans who stood before me last Sunday, in the pouring rain. Just like those who died offshore, in the trenches, or, in World War II, like Ray Marland did, in his Spitfire.
Ray signed up early, volunteering for England’s RAF (Royal Air Force). He volunteered so that he wouldn’t be enlisted and lose his choice of action. My mother recalls he hated bayonet practice, couldn’t imagine being on the ground as a member of a ground troop having to spear another human being, then extract his bayonet from another person’s body. He had always wanted to learn to fly, so volunteering for the RAF meant he could at least realize this dream and feel a bit — perhaps at least a bit — in control of his destiny in that time of war.
Throughout his service, he wrote letters home and these remain precious family documents. His letters reveal much: first and foremost, they reveal this man’s love for his family. In 1997, my mother showed me Ray’s letters home. He was a thoughtful son and brother and he addressed his letters lovingly to “Dear All,” so that his mother, father and three sisters could share his words, together.
Ray’s letters tell of how he dodged “EAs” (Enemy Aircraft) in his Spitfire plane. He uses words like “zigzagging” flight paths, of deflecting hits to his Spitfire through what sound to be extraordinary maneuvers, using what he calls the “booster button” for sudden, unexpected bursts of speed. Several times he records hits to the fuselage or wing. His letters always ring with the relief — palpable relief — of survival.
We can read his frustration when his leave was terminated abruptly in 1941, of his desperate attempts to call home all thwarted by a severe storm. Then he was transported by air boat to Gibraltar… a 20- or is that a 27-hour trip? His writing is sometimes difficult to decipher.
In Gibraltar he has time to explore, so he does some shopping for what he calls “Exmas” gifts. Only one ever reaches my grandparents’ home in Preston, England. It was a plaque for my grandmother, lovingly inscribed to her and in my aunt’s possession now.
And, amid my mother’s precious letters from the uncle I never knew, lies another poignant letter from one mother to another. It was sent to my grandmother, from the mother of Ray’s best friend. Ray was standing at the base when a dogfight happened above him, in the air. An EA swooped out of nowhere, peppering a Spitfire with mortal fire. The pilot was Ray’s best friend, Peter.
That letter of sympathy, from one mother to another, arrived at granny’s home after Ray’s Spitfire blew up one day, in a routine mission. Sabotage was what my grandmother and grandfather were told.
Perhaps we can all imagine what getting a letter like this must be like. That your child, your much-loved son or daughter, has died in action, overseas, fighting for King (or Queen) and country.
But imagining something isn’t the same, is it?
I can only try to imagine my granny and granddad at their home in Preston, eagerly going to the door, answering the knock. And still, even today, my heart aches for the memory of the cruel knowledge which surely must have struck them, when they realized the contents of the letter. “We regret to inform you but your son ….”
How many mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers through the ages have received such dreadful news?
To think that we are now at war still seems shockingly unthinkable to me. There will be more deaths, more letters home. Letters that announce the tragic death in action of those who are gave their lives for you and me.
And so, next Sunday is Remembrance Day. On the eleventh day, eleventh hour, eleventh month throughout the world, people like you and me will be joined together, honouring the valour and courage of men and women who gave their lives so that we may live in peace.
Will it be raining then?
Ray Marland is buried in the Halfaya Sollum War Cemetery. The website at http://web.ukonline.co.uk notes that it is “located on the main coast road from Mersa Matruh through to Libya, being on the east side of Halfaya Sollum, approximately 12 kilometres from the Egypt/Libya border.
“The cemetery is adjacent to Halfaya Pass, the scene of heavy fighting in 1941 and 1942. All the graves were concentrated into the cemetery from the surrounding area, including military cemeteries at Sidi-Barrani, Buq Buq, Fort Capuzzo, Bardia, Minquar e Zannan, and one known as Camerons Burial Ground at Nibeiwa.”
One day, I’ll go there to lay flowers on his grave.
Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based north of Quyon. Contact her at email@example.com