National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire – the Army

Let’s start this final section with one amazing memorial, then we’ll end our visit with another.  We should mention we enjoyed the gardens and the café – and look forward to coming back when the Remembrance section is open, an exhibition exploring how humanity remembers. There are also many memorials I didn’t photo, and others that I even failed to find (The Donor Family Network is an obvious one for me). We will be back.

The Shot at Dawn memorial is one of those that makes you stand in silence. During WW1 309 British and Commonwealth soldiers were shot for desertion, cowardice, striking a senior officer, disobeying a lawful command, casting away arms and sleeping at post. Most of these were sentenced after a short trial at which no real defence was possible. Andy de Comyn’s statue is modelled on Private Herbert Burden of the 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, who was shot in Ypres in 1915, aged just 17. The wooden posts are arranged like a Greek amphitheatre, each one named and given their age (when we know it) – many of them were just children. I failed to photo the six trees which stand for the firing squad – and we should not forget the trauma that being in the squad must have caused. It is good that a pardon was issued in 2006, but a tragedy that so many died.

‘The hand of peace’ is a memorial for Sapper Support, asking us to think about post-traumatic stress and mental well-being. The sculptor was Peter Barnes, and we are invited to reach out and hold the hand of the person who needs our love and support. There is an additional notice at the moment. Is it poignant, or does it increase the fear? There has been little reported of the mental cost of the pandemic, and what the mental toll will be over the next few years, to soldiers and so many others.

I found the Ambulance Service memorial touched me in a way I didn’t expect. I don’t know how many ambulance crew have died, but I do know that their job is dangerous. I have had several high speed journeys with my boys – I shall never forget being in the passenger seat of an ambulance car on one of Gareth’s journeys to London for a new heart. We had gone from Bury to the Stansted services in a souped-up minibus, then transferred to a fast car for the ride on to Great Ormond Street. He put the blues and twos on as we came round the roundabout, down the slip road, then I watched the needle on the speedo. It didn’t take long before we were over a hundred. Most cars got out of our way, but I could see the concentration of our driver. Later we were coming in along the Bow Road, dodging the traffic, through the red lights, wrong side of the road – all because it was his job. I have no doubt there was danger, but I never felt safer. Sometimes, I am sure, something goes wrong and lives are lost.

The Royal Tank Regiment has a model of a Mark V Heavy Tank (Male) which took part in the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918, less than two years after the first battle involving tanks which was on the Somme in September 1916. If I come in the Spring I will see hundreds of daffodils planted in the pattern of tank tracks, and if I look more closely I will see a pattern of ash trees, several of which were propagated from trees from the battlefield at Cambrai.

The Polar Bear deserved a closer look. It is a memorial to the 49th West Riding Infantry Division and was dedicated on 7 June 1998. The Infantry was formed in 1908 and fought in France and Flanders during WW1. In WW2 they saw action in Norway and Iceland, hence the name. The bear is made from yellow hardwood and was created by Essex woodcarvers.

The Normandy Veterans original memorial was dedicated in 1999, and an improved one went in in 2014 for the 70th anniversary. Julie’s dad was one of those involved – he was in the Duke of Cornwall’s. We keep saying we ought to find out more, trouble is that someone with the name of Henry Brown is not exactly the easiest person to trace.

Blown away, by Sioban Coppinger, FRSA, 2014. “A study of a moment in time. The young man, his life fleeting as a gust, sees the whole world in a glance.” The artist’s inspiration was from T.S. Eliot, “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future”. It is made from bronze laurel leaves and sits on a plinth fabricated in mild steel. It has intentionally been left to rust, with stripes of bronze reflecting its adopted strength.

We left the Armed Forces Memorial till last. It is reached by a flight of stairs, but the path circles round twice and that is a special way (though I am glad my wife now has Morgan the powerchair rather than Esme the wheelchair). This is the memorial where over 10,000 names are recorded, those who have been killed on duty since the end of WW2. Since 1948, the men and women of the Armed Forces bhave taken part in more than 50 operations and conflicts across the world. To quote the guide “These actions have ranged from hot war to peacekeeping, from humanitarian assistance to fighting terrorism, from the jungles of Malaysia to the storms of the South Atlantic, from the seaport of Aden to the streets of Northern Ireland. It is not just service men and women who have made sacrifices. Behind every name on the Memorial there are the wives, husbands, partners, parents, children and colleagues who have loved them and who live with the pain and consequences of their loss every day.”

I recognised one of the names, and I must check the name of the man from Darley Abbey who died in the Falkland’s conflict. There is space for more names.

The Memorial was designed by Liam O’Connor and draws its inspiration from the ancient landscapes of prehistoric Britain and the classical forms of ancient Rome. At the centre are two bronze sculptures, the embodiment of loss and sacrifice. Created by Ian Rank-Broadley it bears witness to the cost of armed conflict. A gap has been left in the two southern walls, which allows a shaft of sunlight to penetrate to the heart of the Memorial, onto the central bronze wreath, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year.

It was an inspiring end to our visit. We had walked 5 miles, and yet there is a great deal more to see.

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