My earliest memory of Remembrance Sunday involves my mother at the wheel of her green Morris Traveller, a redoutable half-timbered vehicle, half car, half cupboard. We lived in Kirkhill then, it was Sunday and we were late for church in Fortrose and so she was driving faster than normal. We came round a bend and there, to our mutual horror, was the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the war memorial at Tore. Dignified veterans scattered as we unintentionally roared through the centre of the parade at precisely 11am. Mum was so mortified she wept – but she kept her foot and head hard down for fear of being recognised as a respected local teacher. ‘Oh, what would your grandpa have thought?’ she gasped.
This was over fifty years ago now. The road layout by the church has been changed to correct the blind bend, and the church is no longer even a church. Things change. Life has moved on and yet, at this grey time of year, as autumn crumbles into the cold earth of winter, we continue to remember those who have died as a result of war.
The Armistice is commemorated with even greater solemnity in France than it is here. 11th November is a national holiday. In Bavay, a small town devastated by two world wars, children lay bouquets adorned with tricolor ribbons. The difference is invasion. Channel Islands apart, the UK did not suffer the agony and humiliation of military overthrow and control by a hostile foreign power. In France they remember the fallen but also the relief of a double liberation just 26 years apart.
Tom, my mother’s father, was in Bavay for the very end of the war. Even though he was then married, the last year of WWI was the hardest of all for him: he returned from convalescence after gassing to find his Indian cavalry brothers had all been sent to Mesopotamia. He was now an Assistant Provost Marshal (a military policeman) for a division and could not accompany them. He would never see his Indian cavalry friend Amar Singh or his right hand man Arjan Singh – or any of them – ever again.
During the retreat from the Somme in March 1918, Tom held back men fleeing in chaos at gunpoint and tried to stem the flood of desperate refugees. These scenes remained with him as recurring nightmares to the end of his life.
When the Armistice was announced on November 11th he was one of the first to know via a signal he then copied out by hand and distributed to the maires within the area.
How do I know this? Back in 2018 during my Armistice Day visit to Bavay, an elderly lady knocked on the door of the Auberge de Bellevue where I was staying. She was the grand-daughter of Gaston Derome, the maire of Bavay, who wrote my grandfather the thank you letter which led me to Bavay on the first place. She handed over a cardboard box. Inside were Gaston’s diaries.
Short of time before my departure I found the entry for 11th November. This paper fluttered out at his feet – and I bent and picked up Tom’s note to Gaston giving details of how the Armistice was to be conducted.
Gaston’s war as a civilian was arguably worse than Tom’s as a soldier. Widowed just before the war, and with four young children, he was arrested, threatened with execution more than once, imprisoned and interned.
Tom rode into Bavay on 7th November and the battle to liberate the little town lasted two days. A shell exploded at Gaston’s house, narrowly avoiding both Gaston and Tom. I have stood beside the door where it happened.
In a way the writing of Major Tom’s War has been a personal journey of commemoration. I hope the paperback will soon reach the descendants of Amar Singh and Arjan Singh in India, and, one day, once the French translation is complete, of Gaston Derome in Bavay.
Over 74,000 Indian Army soldiers died in WWI. And of the 40 million casualties worldwide, 10 million were civilians. Lest we forget.
Vee Walker’s award-winning novel Major Tom’s War can be ordered now from the publishers Kashi House (www.kashihouse.com), Waterstones and Amazon RRP £9.99.