The clock on the tower of the church in Evington Village struck a quarter to the hour as they exited the door. I spotted him immediately. His flowing white hair blowing in the cold biting wind. He marched in time with the others. His back ramrod straight despite his age and infirmity. He swung his cane with a swagger. A swagger he had carried throughout his life. He was on parade again. Medals proudly flashing on his chest in the low sunlight.
He was marching with the local branch of the British Legion to the small cenotaph at the centre of the village. He did not know I was watching, hidden behind the church wall. He did not know I was filming his last parade. I wondered what thoughts were going through his mind as he marched with his comrades for the final time. I could see that his eyes were watering. Was it the wind? Was it his memories?
He had been mobilised in the spring of 1939 as he was in the Territorial Army. When War was declared in September he was serving in the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. His army number was 4859243. He was transferred to the Royal Artillery in 1940. He spent most of the War serving on anti-aircraft batteries. He was injured in the leg and blinded in one eye while in action.
He was the fittest in his platoon. He could run a mile in under 5 minutes on cinder tracks wearing old plimsolls. He became a physical training instructor. Because of this, he was promoted to bombardier on many occasions but his lifelong struggle with authority and regulations meant that he was ‘busted’ to private just as regularly. On his wedding photo you can see the shadow of his stripes on his battle dress.
Like many of his generation he rarely talked about the War. All I have are brief glimpses of what he did and what it meant to him. He served most of the time in remote locations in the UK. But, he did tell of excursions abroad to bring back the diamonds from the Netherlands and something he called Heavy Water. He never claimed to be a hero but he was proud of his service. For him it had been an adventure in the same way as attending university was for many of my generation. He was away from home experiencing a different life and making new friends. Friends that he remembered for the rest of his life. Was he thinking of them now as he marched in silence to the beat of a lonely drum?
I know he missed Mam during those long years. They were married in 1942 in her local church in Leicester. He was on special leave. My sister Pat was born the following year. He saw very little of her until he was demobbed in 1946. On one occasion he ‘borrowed’ the battalion motor bike and rode from the south coast in the middle of winter to see them. His hands were frozen to the handlebars when he arrived. He was punished on his return and lost his stripes again.
He had been a fighter all of his life. He boxed for his battalion and once fought the Canadian professional lightweight champion in an inter-army bout. He was badly beaten but survived the three rounds to lose on points. The bout took place in the De la War Pavilion in Bexhill. We visited it once when I was young. He claimed that it was the boxing match described in Spike Milligan’s book, ‘Adolf Hitler My Part In his Downfall’. He also claimed that he was the ‘Ginger’ who taught Spike to drive an army lorry. His hair was flaming ginger then. To match his temper
He told another story of a time he was stationed in Belfast. He did not know the town. On a Saturday evening he walked into a local pub to ask the way to the nearest Catholic Church so that he could attend evening Mass. The pub was in a protestant area and was full of Orangemen. Even though he was wearing the uniform of a British soldier he needed all of his fighting and running skills to escape that night.
He had lost his boxing medals during the blitz of Sefton when his billet was bombed out. The only medals that survived the war were the ones he was now wearing on his chest as he marched on into the cold headwind. I walked along with him, still filming. I could see that he was struggling but he would not stop. There would be no more parades after this. The local branch of the Legion was disbanding as most of its members had passed on. He had been determined to attend and to finish the parade, despite his illness.
As they reached the stone cross the column came to a halt. Men and women stepped forward to lay their wreaths. He did so slowly. Kneeling to place his on the steps. The church clock struck eleven. They all stood to attention. The boy bugler blew the Last Post. I could no longer see his face but I knew there would be tears. Like me, he always cried when he heard the last post. I stepped forward from the crowed to take his arm. He was shocked and swore, surprised to see me there
We had always argued about Remembrance Day as we argued about many things in my youth. I failed to understand what it meant to him. As a pacifist I thought he was glorifying war and cruelly told him so. I know now that he hated war as much as me and that the parade was a reminder of this and of the friends he had lost. He said goodbye to the few who remained and we walked to my car to drive home. We did not speak. We rarely did. His knuckles were white as he gripped his seat. He never trusted my driving. I never showed him the film I shot on that day. I keep it as a memory of his life and of his courage and of his suffering.
When he died in 1997, Mam told me that he had asked that British Legion Colours be placed on his coffin with a guard of honour. I told the old Irish Monseigneur at their local church that this was his last wish. He refused to allow it. He said that there would be no representatives of the British Army in his church. He knew my Dad well. They had often argued about this and about many other things. They were both stubborn men. I told him that I supported a united Ireland and understood his concerns but that this was Dad’s wish. We compromised and the British Legion members walked after him with colours flying as he exited the church from the funeral mass. This was truly his last parade. I walked behind them in honour of dad’s final wish. Seeking his forgiveness for the arguments of my youth and the words that were never said. He was my hero in so many ways. Yet I never told him so. I say it to him now as I watch him march away again, his head held high, his back ramrod straight, his hair flaming in the light of the setting sun.
This is part of a series of memories about my Dad which includes;
The Last Wave.
The Last Vote.
The last Words.
The Grave Dig.