May joins Macron to pay tribute to fallen soldiers of Great War
● 100 years after the guns fell silent along the Western Front, Prime Minister travels to the war cemeteries of Flanders
The Prime Minister drew on the words of First World War poets to pay tribute to fallen soldiers as she began to mark the centenary of the Armistice.
Theresa May travelled to Belgium and France yesterday to take part in a series of engagements alongside French president Emmanuel Macron and Belgian prime minister Charles Michel.
Ending her visit at the Thiepval Memorial, she toured the site – which bears the names of more than 72,000 members of the armed forces who died in battle – accompanied by the director general and interns from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
In her second wreath-laying ceremony of the day, she and Mr Macron placed a garland combining poppies and cornflower le bleuet, the two national emblems of remembrance for Britain and France.
On it she left a card with an extract from poem A Soldier’s Cemetery by Sergeant John William Streets which read: “There lie the flower of youth, the men who scorn’ d to live (so died) when languished liberty.”
She came to the ceremony from a working lunch with Mr Macron in Albert, the town in the heart of the Somme region which suffered significant bombardment during the conflict. The president was born in nearby Amiens and his British great-grandfather, Bristolborn butcher George William Robertson, fought at the Somme, was decorated for bravery and stayed in France after the war, marrying Suzanne Julia Amelie Leblond in Abbeville in May 1919.
Mrs May began her morning some 80 miles away in Mons visiting the St Symphorien Military Cemetery with Mr Michel.
Set up by the German army, it is the final resting place for British and German soldiers killed at the Battle of Mons.
The pair were greeted by a guard of honour from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and stood for the sound of The Last Post before a minute’s silence.
Later they met serving members of the British and Belgian armed forces.
Dressed in a black coat and knee-high patent boots, Mrs May was sombre as she laid wreaths at the graves of Private John Parr of the Middlesex Regiment who died on 21 August 1914 – the first UK soldier to be killed in the conflict – and the last to be killed, Private George Ellison of the Royal Irish Lancers, who died on the Western Front on 11 November 1918 at 9:30am before the Armistice came into effect at 11am.
In the note left by the resting place of Private Parr, Mrs May quoted another line of wartime poetry – The Soldier written by Rupert Brooke.
She wrote: “There is in that rich earth a richer dust concealed.”
The sonnet was written by Brooke, an officer in the Royal Navy, while on leave and formed part of a collection of work entitled 1914 which was published in January 1915.
Brooke never experienced front-line combat and died from blood poisoning on April 23 1915 after being bitten by a mosquito while sailing to Gallipoli. He was buried on the Greek island of Skyros.
At the grave of Private Ellison, also on a headed Downing Street card attached to the garland of poppies, Mrs May wrote: “They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted… We will remember them.”
This was from another poem written by Laurence Binyon and published in September 1914 which is often quoted in Remembrance Sunday services.
Tomorrow’s 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War is a time to reflect on the need for countries to work together to ensure nothing like it ever happens again. The edited extracts below, from two articles published by The Scotsman on 11 and 12 November 1918, give a flavour of the feelings of the time.
From 11 November: “With the fall of the great fabric of militarism, new opportunities and new responsibilities come before Europe and the world. The war has strengthened and sanctified the bonds that bind together the nations of the British family, and also those that unite the peoples who have been fighting side by side in the cause of freedom and humanity. We can never forget the priceless debt we owe to the Dominions overseas, to India, and to our Allies. But through carelessness or ignorance, or malice, even links welded with blood and fire can be dissolved. Unless within the Empire, and within the United Kingdom, we are prepared to continue ‘to sink sectional interests, partisan claims and class and creed differences in pursuit of a common purpose’, to ‘banish faction’ until the great British realm is thoroughly safe, the fruits of our labours and sacrifices will be in danger of being lost.
“It will take generations and centuries, says Mr Lloyd George, to develop the great prospects which, in this hour of deliverance from the sinister spell of militarism, have been opened to all the nations of the earth. But unless all ranks and classes among us appreciate their duties and their opportunities, and unless the new situation be wisely and firmly handled by our statesmen, Britain may miss her share of future greatness.”
From 12 November: “A great shadow has passed from the world. The House of Commons never interpreted the feelings of the nation more aptly than yesterday when it put aside all business and went to St Margaret’s, the home church of Parliament, to give reverent thanks for the deliverance of our time from a great peril. There was much rejoicing in the land yesterday; there was beneath it a deep current of solemn feeling. Light-heartedness in the present is restrained by the sombe recollection of a past scarcely yet out of anxious thought.
“A few days ago, when a false report was circulated that an armistice had been signed, James M Beck, the American writer, gave the people of Great Britain praise for their selfrestraint in the moment of victory. ‘You,’ he said addressing a gathering of London citizens, ‘who have gone through the darkest hours your Empire has ever known, you who have come out of the depths show not a single sign of boastfulness or undue self-glorification. Britain was nobly great in the hour of blackest disaster; she is supremely great in the hour of victory.’
“The people of this country knew their backs were at the wall six months ago, but they did not doubt, it was not in their nature to flinch, any more than it was in the temper of our soldiers to harbour a thought of final failure. And the rebound from one period to the other so little disturbs our daily routine that it leaves an observer so capable as Mr Beck the impression of the impassive stoicism of the British character.
“But that stoicism would, it is safe to say, have been ruffled if the terms imposed upon Germany had been less severe than they are.
“The war is ended; the Versailles Council have ensured that blessing for the world. It is peace, and not merely the suspension of the conflict, that was celebrated yesterday. Germany is vanquished. She cannot raise the sword again.”