The contrast between the veterans and the young cadets at the Drumhead Service in Gadebridge Park this month was a poignant start to commemorations of the start of the First World War – an event that not only had a profound life-changing impact on our grandparents and great-grandparents, but has also shaped the world we live in today.
In August 1914 the Royal Field Artillery arrived, turning the town into one huge military camp. A large number of prominent buildings were requisitioned and all the local big houses were used for billets and stabling. Open areas such as Gadebridge Park and the fields around Handpost Farm (now the lower part of Queensway and St Pauls Road area) were full of lines of horses and mules.
This frenetic activity was replicated all across these islands as the whole country came together to defend France against the German invasion and honour the Treaty of London by which Britain had promised to protect Belgium. Many years of tension in Europe had finally erupted.
Although Britain itself was not under immediate threat, Britain had become concerned at Germany’s growing military strength and had signed up to be part of the Triple Entente – with France and Russia to block the Kaiser’s expansionist moves. Thus, we were slowly being dragged into Europe’s battles which would end with a war that decimated the population of Europe and took such a huge number of young men in the prime of their lives from all corners of the globe.
One the eve of war and whilst watching the lamps being lit in the evening over St James’s Park the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey made his famous comment “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”
One hundred years on, all of us now take our democracy and freedom for granted. In fact, many people hardly take any interest at all. But that freedom – including the freedom to take no interest – has been hard won, again and again.
We owe the people of a century ago a great deal, perhaps more than we can ever know, and that is why it is important we reflect and consider the sacrifices they made both on the battlefields and by those left at home whose loved ones were never to return.
Also this month I would like to add my personal tribute to remarkable World War 2 veteran Ken Blake who passed away in July. His is an incredible story including service with the British Expeditionary Force, being one of the very last to be evacuated at Dunkirk, the Battle of Malta, a member of Churchill’s commando brigade in Greece, being on a ship that was sunk, being captured and sent across Europe in a cattle truck to a labour camp in Germany, before escaping and walking across Germany by night to freedom. He was a true war hero and a real gentleman. I am proud to have known him.