Essays

Mary J. Breen

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The Cenotaph

In 2014, on the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red opened at the Tower of London. Flowing out of the thick Tower walls and filling the moat were 888,246 hand-made, ceramic, blood-red poppies, one for each military fatality from Britain and the Commonwealth. This tide of red as far as one could see was a harrowing image, especially while The Last Post rang through the warm evening air.

I remember well the first time I heard The Last Post. It was 1954, and I was at a Remembrance Day ceremony in our southern Ontario village. I was ten. As a snow-laden wind blew through my thin Brownie uniform, the mournful sound of that bugle burrowed its way past my worries about how long I’d have to stand there in the cold, and planted the first grains of what real loss might mean.

Like big and small communities all across the country, we had a parade every November 11th. People gathered at the bandstand: town officials, band members, and of course veterans. Leading the parade were the flag bearers carrying both the Union Jack and, in those days, the Red Ensign. Then came veterans from the army, navy, and air force all in uniform—some very young, some my father’s age, and some, to me, very old. All men. Following the veterans were the band, the officials, and then we Brownies and Guides, Cubs and Scouts. Some veterans were able to march in formation, but some could only struggle along on canes or leaning on another’s steady arm. I remember how they all held their heads high, their chests proud with medals.

It was a short distance to the cenotaph, a simple concrete column about 10 feet tall, with the names of local men who had died in World War I on one side and World War II on another. I walked by that cenotaph four times a day every day for seven years, but I paid it little attention except on those November days when I was ten, eleven and twelve. I didn’t know that the word cenotaph meant an empty tomb, but I knew it was different from the cemetery gravestones where the bodies lay deep in the cold earth below. I knew that the dead remembered here lay in battlefields and cemeteries and ocean depths very far away.

Many townspeople stood waiting in a straggling half-circle, all in dark clothes, the men in fedoras, the women in plain hats. The ceremony began with Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past. Then the minister read from the Bible and thanked God for helping us be victorious over evil, and for giving us the men and women who had suffered to defend our country—both those who returned and those who had made “the ultimate sacrifice.” The names of each of the dead were read aloud. Then came the recitation of In Flanders Fields which everyone, young and old, knew by heart as we’d all memorized it in school. I wish I’d known then that it was a very famous poem read in ceremonies like this all across the country, and I wish I had known it had been written by a Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Col. John McCrae, who came from a town only 30 miles away.

Then the wreaths—modest little circles of felt poppies on wire stands—were laid by families, members of the Legion, the village council, and the IODE. There was always one lone woman among them, a mother, guided forward on the arm of a serviceman, carrying a small wreath and walking as if to her doom. Everyone stood very still while she placed her wreath, and then touched it one last time. Just before the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the heart-breaking bugle began The Last Post, and many eyes, including mine, would fill with tears. The sense of sadness and loss was overwhelming. After the two minutes of silence, the bugler played Reveille, and the band played God Save the Queen, and then it was over. I remember little clusters of women huddled together afterwards—the widows, the mothers, the sisters—propping each other up under the heavy sky like all those images of women at gravesides. Some were crying, and some were looking off into the distance, far, far away.

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1 Comment

Margaret Slavin August 4, 2016 at 9:08 pm

Beautifully written, and this is just the way I remember it too!

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