Som­bre and silent, Mrs May pays trib­ute to the fallen

Scottish Daily Mail - - News - by Robert Hard­man

DWARFED by the largest British war me­mo­rial ever built, Theresa May yes­ter­day reached for the words of one who had died within its gaze.

‘There lie the flower of youth, the men who scorn’d to live (so died) when lan­guished Lib­erty,’ the Prime Min­is­ter wrote on the poppy wreath she laid at the Thiep­val Me­mo­rial, Sir Ed­win Lu­tyens’s soar­ing mon­u­ment to the miss­ing of the Somme.

She had bor­rowed her mes­sage from a poem, The Sol­dier’s Ceme­tery, by Sergeant John Wil­liam Streets. He wrote it not long be­fore his death on July 1, 1916 – the first day of the Bat­tle of the Somme, the worst day in British mil­i­tary his­tory.

On a day like yes­ter­day, the Prime Min­is­ter pre­ferred to leave the talk­ing to the dead and made no fur­ther pub­lic com­ment.

Along­side her, in crisp au­tumn sun­shine, stood French pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron.

They met close to where Mr Macron’s British great-grand­fa­ther, Ge­orge Robert­son, fought in the trenches.

Mr Robert­son, a Bris­tol-born butcher, was just 19 dur­ing the Somme cam­paign and won medals for his ser­vice be­fore stay­ing in France af­ter the war. He mar­ried French­woman Suzanne Le­blond in Abbeville in 1919, and the cou­ple had three daugh­ters, in­clud­ing Jac­que­line, who mar­ried An­dre Macron. Their son, Jean-Michel, is Mr Macron’s fa­ther.

The two lead­ers had come to­gether to the Somme ahead of to­mor­row’s cen­te­nary of the Armistice, an event which will bring much of the world to a halt at the 11th hour, ex­actly a hun­dred years af­ter the guns fell silent. Come that mo­ment, Mrs May and Mr Macron will be in their re­spec­tive cap­i­tals.

In Lon­don, the Prince of Wales will lead the na­tion in hon­our­ing the coun­try’s war dead dur­ing the na­tional ser­vice of re­mem­brance at the Ceno­taph in White­hall.

He will lay a wreath on be­half of the Queen as she watches from the bal­cony of the For­eign and Com­mon­wealth Of­fice. For the first time, a Ger­man leader – Pres­i­dent Frank-Wal­ter Stein­meier – will lay a wreath at the Ceno­taph.

Af­ter the ser­vice, 10,000 peo­ple, cho­sen by bal­lot, will pay their re­spects to the First World War dead in a ‘Peo­ple’s Pro­ces­sion’ past the Ceno­taph.

Yes­ter­day, Mrs May and Mr Macron came to pay trib­ute on soil so vi­o­lated that a large tract of land along­side the me­mo­rial is still out of bounds be­hind steel fenc­ing, be­cause of un­ex­ploded shells.

The Bat­tle of the Somme was a tragedy for both na­tions, with 420,000 British and 204,000 French ca­su­al­ties. En­graved on the walls of this sa­cred tower of brick and Port­land stone are the names of the 73,357 British and Com­mon­wealth troops whose bod­ies were never found – men of ev­ery rank and back­ground, among them a few fa­mous sports­men and writ­ers of their day but mostly, in the words of one his­to­rian, ‘un­known hum­ble men, who never had a chance of be­com­ing fa­mous’.

The me­mo­rial sits among dozens of ceme­ter­ies. The one im­me­di­ately along­side it very de­lib­er­ately con­tains equal num­bers of French and British fallen, 300 of each laid out ei­ther side of the Cross of Sac­ri­fice. Es­corted by two young guides from the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion, Mrs May and Mr Macron in­spected the grave of Ri­fle­man Philip Stubbs, a man who had served in the King’s Royal Ri­fle Corps with Mrs May’s ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Reg­i­men­tal Sergeant Ma­jor Thomas Brasier (he him­self died at Salonika).

Ris­ing up be­hind them, that piti­ful stone roll call of those with no known grave was glow­ing in the set­ting sun. Look­ing up at a cor­ner at ran­dom, I spot­ted a ‘Ma­jor CC Dick­ens’ of the Kens­ing­ton Lon­don Reg­i­ment. Cedric Dick­ens was the grand­son of the writer, Charles. He was last seen lead­ing his men in to ac­tion in nearby Bouleaux Wood in the lat­ter stages of the bat­tle.

This vast con­struc­tion, which re­quired one mil­lion bricks, might have been larger still. Out of def­er­ence to the French, Lu­tyens ac­tu­ally re­duced it by a few feet to en­sure that it did not ex­ceed the height of the hal­lowed Arc de Tri­om­phe in Paris – though the flag­poles which he then planted on top ac­tu­ally make it frac­tion­ally taller. Yes­ter­day, both flags flew side by side, vis­i­ble for miles around across fields which, a cen­tury be­fore, had been a hellish wastescape.

The short cer­e­mony and in­spec­tion of the ceme­tery fol­lowed a bi­lat­eral meet­ing and work­ing lunch in the town hall at Al­bert. Here was a re­minder that some things re­ally are big­ger than parochial con­tem­po­rary prob­lems such as Brexit or the up­com­ing Eu­ro­pean elec­tions, even if the French pres­i­dent fre­quently seems to for­get this. Mr Macron’s be­hav­iour dur­ing this cen­te­nary is ques­tion­able. He has spent the past week on a ‘me­mo­rial tour’ up and down the West­ern Front, mix­ing bat­tle­field tours with brazen po­lit­i­cal grand­stand­ing. It has not been en­tirely suc­cess­ful. His pop­u­lar­ity rat­ings are tum­bling and the far-Right are on the rise ahead of next year’s Eu­ro­pean elec­tions, par­tic­u­larly in the in­dus­trial north – places much like Al­bert, in fact.

YES­TER­DAY, the pres­i­dent was so busy glad­hand­ing lo­cals in nearby Lens that he turned up in Al­bert 40 min­utes late. Mrs May had flown in on time, and was left work­ing on her boxes at the lo­cal air­port un­til re­ceiv­ing the green light to head in to town. By then, Mr Macron was stand­ing alone in front of the tele­vi­sion cam­eras at the steps of Al­bert’s town, craftily mak­ing it look as if it was the Brit- ish who were be­ing un­punc­tual. It is un­sur­pris­ing that Mrs May has de­cided not to at­tend to­day’s in­stal­ment of the Macron show when the pres­i­dent holds a cer­e­mony in Com­piegne, where the Al­lies and the Ger­mans signed the Armistice. An­gela Merkel will be there. Bri­tain is send­ing Cab­i­net Of­fice min­is­ter David Lid­ing­ton.

Mr Macron has also used the cen­te­nary to in­vite all the world’s lead­ers to Paris to­mor­row, pre­sent­ing the First World War as pri­mar­ily a French vic­tory. Pres­i­dents Trump and Putin will be among those present. This will be fol­lowed by a spe­cial ‘peace sum­mit’ which Mr Macron’s aides are hail­ing as ‘a Davos of gov­er­nance’. It will start with a ma­jor ad­dress on the state of the planet by Mr Macron him­self, in con­trast to the British tra­di­tion of politi­cians say­ing lit­tle or noth­ing of sig­nif­i­cance on Re­mem­brance Sun­day.

Lit­tle won­der, then, that there is ex­as­per­a­tion at both Down­ing Street and Buck­ing­ham Palace.

Mrs May was point­edly avoid­ing any charges of grand­stand­ing yes­ter­day. She started the day at Mons, in Bel­gium, the very ful­crum of the First World War. It was here that Cor­po­ral E Thomas of the 4th Royal Ir­ish Dra­goon Guards fired the first

British shot of the war on Au­gust 20, 1914, as the British Ex­pe­di­tionary Force valiantly tried to hold off the Ger­man ad­vance through Bel­gium. It was the first British shot fired in anger on Eu­ro­pean soil since the Bat­tle of Water­loo.

It was also here that the first Vic­to­ria Crosses of the war were awarded – to Pri­vate Frank God­ley, of the 4th Royal Fusiliers, who sur­vived the war, and his com­mand­ing of­fi­cer, Lieu­tenant Mau­rice Dease, who did not. He lies in per­pe­tu­ity at the beau­ti­fully main­tained St Sym­phorien Ceme­tery just out­side Mons, a few yards from the first Ger­man to win the Iron Cross. Here, too, lies Pri­vate John Parr, the first British sol­dier of the Great War to be killed.

By as­ton­ish­ing co­in­ci­dence, his grave lies op­po­site that of the last British sol­dier to die in the Great War – Pri­vate Ge­orge El­li­son of the 5th Royal Ir­ish Lancers. A few yards away lies the very last man to die for King and coun­try – Pri­vate Ge­orge Price of the 6th Cana­dian In­fantry Bri­gade. He was shot by a Ger­man sniper at 10.58am on Novem­ber 11 as he re­ceived flow­ers from a grate­ful Bel­gian civil­ian.

Here, in one small, stun­ning ceme­tery – orig­i­nally built by the Ger­mans, 284 of whom lie here – we find the en­tire ghastly nar­ra­tive of the Great War framed in a few tragic yards of well-tended grass. As Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion his­to­rian Max Dut­ton ad­mit­ted: ‘It is ex­tra­or­di­nary that fate should bring th­ese men, or­di­nary serv­ing sol­diers, to­gether like this. It makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.’

It was en­tirely right that the Prime Min­is­ter should come here to pay her re­spects. She came bear­ing less well-known lines from some of our most fa­mous war po­etry. Ac­com­pa­nied by Bel­gian prime min­is­ter Charles Michel, she laid a wreath first at the grave of John Parr. On it, she had writ­ten a line from Rupert Brooke’s The Sol­dier: ‘There is in that rich earth a richer dust con­cealed.’

For Ge­orge El­li­son, she had taken a line from Lau­rence Binyon’s For The Fallen (‘They shall grow not old’). She wrote: ‘They were staunch to the end against odds un­counted. We will re­mem­ber them.’ Stand­ing along­side the graves were small de­tach­ments from the reg­i­men­tal heirs of th­ese two sol­diers, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Reg­i­ment in the case of Parr and the Royal Lancers, in hon­our of El­li­son.

Here, too, were serv­ing men from the Royal Reg­i­ment of Fusiliers, proudly com­mem­o­rat­ing Lt Dease VC. Just the other day, work­ers mend­ing a wa­ter pipe found three bod­ies – a Lan­cashire Fusilier and two Aus­tralians. The Lan­cashire lad was buried with full hon­ours this week. The Aus­tralians will be in­terred to­gether on Mon­day.

A cen­tury on and this rich earth con­tin­ues to make one thing very clear: re­mem­brance is not go­ing to stop once this week­end is over.

Re­spects: Mrs May at the St Sym­phorien Ceme­tery in Mons yes­ter­day

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