The haunting bells ringing out to mark a nation’s loss
This morning, the ringing of thousands of victory bells will honour the Armistice louder than ever, writes Guy Kelly
This morning, at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day, silence will reign over almost every city, town, village and hamlet around the country.
A moment of quiet reflection in commemoration of the servicemen and women who have fallen in the line of duty has been observed in Britain every year since 1919. As ever, at the Cenotaph today, a bugler from the Scots Guards will mark the beginning of the pause by playing the Last Post, and then, two minutes later, announce its completion with the bright Reveille.
But this year there’ll be extra noise. At around midday, as services of remembrance conclude everywhere from the Isles of Scilly to the Orkneys, the air will be filled with the sound of tens of thousands of ringing church bells.
The cacophony will be the close of a year-long campaign, Ringing Remembers, which intends to commemorate the 1,400 bell ringers who died in the First World War by recruiting the same number of new ringers. Led by community engagement organisation Big Ideas, in partnership with the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers and the British and German governments, the campaign’s ambition was grand – especially with only 12 months to achieve it – but as The Telegraph can exclusively reveal, the response has far surpassed expectations. Last week, there were more than 2,400 new campanologists learning to ring bells, and more than 3,000 total sign-ups. “The aim was to get to 1,400, a symbolic replacement for the number lost, but wonderfully we’ve smashed it,” says Lord Nick Bourne, the minister for faith, whose department helped on the campaign. “We’re going to have a bulge soon – there won’t be enough bells for them all to play, which is a lovely problem,”
It’s an often overlooked moment in history, but on Nov 11 1918 bells played a key role in marking the end of the First World War. When the Armistice had been signed at 5am and it was agreed that hostilities were to cease six hours later, the prime minister, David Lloyd George, consulted his War Cabinet to determine how to spread the message that war had ended.
A number of methods were chosen: the press would be alerted, Navy ships would be dressed, the order prohibiting public clocks from striking should be lifted and, finally, there should be a bloody great din. Bells became the WhatsApp of their day.
“The Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces should at once inform all Home Commands, and should take the necessary steps to celebrate the news by the firing of maroons, playing of bands, blowing of bugles, and the ringing of church bells throughout the Kingdom,” a government memo read.
Last Tuesday, Lord Bourne joined a motley group of ringers at St Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, in south London, as they prepared to play their part in replicating that noise later today. St Mary’s is one of at least 3,000 bell towers that will be ringing – though given the grassroots campaign was driven by volunteers spreading the word in their own communities, the figure may be closer to the maximum of 5,000.
“One of the great, surprising things is the amount of young people that have joined up. I expected it to all be older people, but look!” Lord Bourne says, gesturing at an arriving group. Their ages range from late-20s to mid-60s, and they meet here every Tuesday and every Sunday.
One is Leanne ne Masterton, an executive assistant at City ty search firm Odgers Berndtson, who ho started bell ringing at the end of August. She was looking for “something challenging” to do in her spare time, and found out about Ringing Remembers on the internet.
“I had never held a Sally [the often multi-coloured fluffy part of the rope that bell be ringers pull] in my life, but I’d looked into my family and there were bell ringers, on and off, through the years,” she says. “I really couldn’t believe be how skilled they were we when I joined for my first fir lesson, to control this massive bell with a pulley pu and make beautiful be music. And they’re t so welcoming, too. t I’ve made a new set of friends with it.” During the First World War Masterton’s grandfather, who served se in the King’s Troop the Royal Horse Artillery, lied about his age and signed up when he was just 15. He was one of 12 brothers, all of whom fought. Three were lost. As she rings on Sunday, she will be remember him.
“He wouldn’t be drawn on the war, never telling his stories, like a lot of people of his generation,” she says. “There are family connections with almost every ringer I’ve met, but that’s the nature of the First World War, isn’t it? You can talk to anyone and you don’t need to dig too deep below the surface to find out they were affected by it in some way.”
In the bell tower, where Lord Bourne appeared to catch a nasty rope burn mid-pull, volunteer bellringing teacher and team leader Louise Booth was putting recruits, new and old, through their paces. As they practised, it was a strangely hypnotic sight: relaxed concentration on their faces, big, exaggerated movements, perfect timing and a thunderous noise from the eight bells above.
“If you’re ringing and everybody can do it, it’s almost like meditation,” says Booth, whose parents were bell ringers, meaning she’s been at it since she was 10. “Then there are all the number patterns, called methods, we can ring. There are thousands. You’re always learning.”
Today, churches can ring whatever method they like; the point is, as it was a century ago, just to celebrate. St Mary’s will be keeping it simple by mainly ringing “rounds” – ringing the bells in order down the scale – and they’ll be part of a network that will cover the country.
“Bells bring people together,” Lord Bourne says. “It’s usually a joyous sound, and it’s not an exclusively British thing but I think it is quite British, isn’t it? People like hearing them around the country.”
With an extra 3,000 ringers signed up, you’d better hope so. There are “pockets around the country where more are still needed”, Ms Booth says, but the campanologist population is in rude health again.
Personally, she will be ringing for her great uncle, George Calverley Kerfoot, a rifleman in the 18th Battalion, King’s Royal Corps, who died in Belgium on Oct 3 1918 – one month before Armistice. He was 19 years old.
“It’s amazing when you read the stories, it makes you think about the loss of life in such a short time. You can’t imagine it, can you?” she says.
Today, she’ll think of him during the two minute’s silence. Then she’ll think of him again as the bells ring out. As all the bells ring out.
‘A surprising thing is been how many young people have joined up to ring bells’
Never forget: poppies at Christ Church, Great Ayton, above; Leanne Masterton, below; bell ringers in Rotherhithe, London, top right