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The Peter Young Column: We Owe Our Freedom To Those Who Served

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Peter Young

At this time of year it is a pleasant duty to write about Remembrance Day on November 11 and to note that interest in honouring the casualties of war has not waned over the years. It is inevitable that memories fade as old soldiers pass away and new generations emerge, yet it is clear this annual commemoration remains important to so many people. It is also perhaps a hopeful sign that history is being kept alive, as a reminder of the misjudgements and mistakes of the past and in the hope they will not be repeated by today’s and future leaders.

Last year’s Remembrance Day had a special significance because it was the centenary of the end of the First World War. The Armistice to bring to a close four years of bloody conflict that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth servicemen – including 700,000 members of the British Armed Forces together with more than twice that number wounded or otherwise disabled – took place at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Most people are aware that it is for this reason that commemorative events and ceremonies are held annually each November – and Remembrance Day itself is on November 11 - in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth to honour those in the armed forces who died or were wounded in the line of duty. They are a sombre reminder of the horror and suffering of warfare and the waste of human life.

The poppy became a famous symbol of remembrance for soldiers who had died in conflict following a famous poem called In Flanders Fields whose author was inspired by the sight of red poppies somehow surviving in the battlefields despite the devastation of war and growing over the graves of the fallen, with the red coming to signify bloodshed. Poppies are distributed each year, as an important part of its fund raising, by the Royal British Legion which was established in 1921 as a charity to provide financial, social and emotional support to the surviving veterans and their dependants.

Nowadays, of course, these commemorations include the Second World War and numerous other conflicts around the globe in which British and other Commonwealth forces have been involved. The overall numbers of casualties in the two world wars are staggering. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which was established by Royal Charter in 1917, is responsible for the commemoration in perpetuity of a total of 1,700,000 men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died during these two wars.

In commemoration of the ending of the First World War, The Tribune published this time last year a supplement about the contribution of volunteers from British colonies in the West Indies who joined the British West Indies Regiment - specially formed in 1915 - and served in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. These included Sir Etienne Dupuch among some 700 volunteers from The Bahamas. With many photographs and reports, the publication provides a compelling account of The Bahamas’ significant contribution to this first global conflict.

The annual commemorative ceremonies here in The Bahamas are always well organised with flawless protocol and formality and a particular focus on those volunteers who selflessly were prepared to undertake military service and to sacrifice their lives for the cause of freedom. The events include the traditional Remembrance Sunday Service in Christ Church Cathedral followed by a wreath laying ceremony in the Garden of Remembrance and with separate commemorations at the Veterans’ Cemetery and the Nassau War Cemetery.

These principal events were preceded this year on November 1 by a solemn wreath laying ceremony on Rawson Square to pay tribute to Bahamians - and to others with Bahamian connections - for their service and contributions to both world wars. This was organised – impeccably, as always – by Adina Munroe-Charlow, who is the Chairman/Treasurer of the British Legion-Bahamas Branch and a reservist in the RBDF. Her unstinting and dedicated work over the course of many years in running the Legion’s local branch and looking after the diminishing numbers of veterans and their families is truly admirable. All those concerned who play a part in the successful organisation and management of these annual commemorative events, including, of course, the Defence Force, also surely deserve much credit for their splendid efforts.

As for Britain, I found it inspiring to watch a video of the Royal British Legion’s service and concert held at the Albert Hall in London on the evening before Remembrance Sunday. The event marked 75 years since notable battles of the Second World War including the D-Day landings in Normandy and celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Government Communications Headquarters which was described as being at the forefront of intelligence gathering in the UK.

Attended by The Queen and senior members of the Royal Family together with hundreds of service personnel and veterans, it included a mixture of hymns, prayers and blessings, military bands, recitals, songs and other performances. But perhaps the highlight for me was a film on a large screen of a special tribute to the work of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, Mounts Bay, which contributed so effectively to the search and rescue and relief effort in Abaco in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in September.

The next day saw the traditional ceremony of laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph on Whitehall in central London. Huge crowds had gathered to pay their respects to the war dead. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Cenotaph itself and also of the two-minute silence at 11 am. Watching proceedings from a balcony, The Queen was photographed wiping a tear from her cheek as she led the nation in tribute to all those who had made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. Prince Charles laid a wreath on her behalf followed by political leaders and others with their own wreaths. At the end there was a march past of veterans after which a long line of black cabs was ready to take them home free of charge!

All in all, this was an impressive display of national remembrance on a bright sunny day which put the lie to what has sometimes been described by cynics as an ‘act of communal melancholy during the dark days of autumnal falling leaves’ – and then the next day, November 11 itself, there were other commemorative events held around the UK and elsewhere in the world.

So there can be no doubt that Remembrance Day is still recognised and supported as much as ever. As a significant commemoration, it symbolises hope as well as loss. While tribute is paid to those who have served their country in the past, at the same time members of the Armed Forces are honoured for continuing to put their lives at risk in order to preserve the peace.

A corner of a foreign field

One of the British airmen with Bahamian connections who was honoured at the wreath laying ceremony on Rawson Square earlier this month was Wing Commander Lionel Rees. Born in Wales, he saw active service in the First World War and was awarded the Victoria Cross, the most prestigious award of the British honours system for members of the Armed Forces.

I was particularly interested to read again about this exceptional man because I had seen his headstone in the Nassau War Cemetery where he was buried after passing away in The Bahamas in 1955. After an outstanding war record, in his retirement Wing Commander Rees, pictured above, sailed single-handedly across the Atlantic and landed in The Bahamas where he settled. He married a Bahamian girl with whom he raised three children.

The Nassau War Cemetery was previously known as the Royal Air Force Cemetery, the cornerstone of which was laid in 1944 by the then colonial Governor, the Duke of Windsor. It is owned and administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A few years ago, I worked with the Commission on a project, which it financed, to refurbish and partly rebuild the cemetery after it had become overgrown and dilapidated following a period of neglect. It is a large separate structure standing in its own grounds - unlike most of the Commission’s cemeteries in the Caribbean that are located inside larger ones - and is now being maintained in accordance with the organisation’s exacting standards and requirements.

How sport is bringing South Africa together

Having written last week about the unexpected but convincing win of the South African Springboks rugby team over the favourites, England, in the final of the world cup in Japan, it has been interesting to read about their later triumphant four-day tour of the country in an open-top bus to show off the famous Webb Ellis trophy to thousands of jubilant supporters. For this has turned out to be much more than winning an important rugby match. It has already served as a powerful uniting moment, in a spirit of optimism, for the whole nation so that its significance reaches beyond the game itself.

This was South Africa’s third world cup success, having also won in 1995 and 2007. During the dark days of the apartheid era, rugby was seen as the sporting embodiment of white minority rule. Then, victory in the 1995 tournament, held in South Africa itself, produced the iconic image of Nelson Mandela presenting the trophy to the Springboks’ captain, Francois Pienaar, which sent a message of hope and reconciliation in the country’s first years of democracy.

But the public reaction to this year’s triumph seems to be on a different scale since the team had a mix of both black and white players, all of whom had been chosen on merit. For the first time, the team had a black captain, Siya Kolisi, who has said that he found it hard to believe that, from a deprived childhood, he could emerge as a leading South African rugby player on the international stage and that his picture was now being beamed around the world after leading his team to glory.

The victory has boosted the image of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ as evidence that the new South Africa embraces diversity and is a beacon of hope for its 57 million people. In the words of the Nobel Prize winner and former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, it has restored a self-doubting country’s confidence and belief in itself – and, despite the continuing deep divisions and violent crime, together with a struggling economy and high unemployment, South Africans can now be encouraged to pull together in the hope of a better future for all. Such is the power of sport.

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