Saturday was Armed Forces Day, which confuses me. I thought Remembrance Sunday was the day on which we make particular efforts to remember our military, what they do at the request of our politicians, and what the cost of that is. Politicians wrap themselves in patriotism when their poll ratings start to slip, so it is perhaps no surprise that in the UK, Armed Forces Day was introduced by Gordon Brown in 2009. Perhaps it is also for people who don’t feel comfortable with organised religion, given that Remembrance Sunday is focused on the church.
I am a pacifist and a cynic. I think the number of wars that have genuinely been required to defeat unquestionable evil can be counted on Shakey’s legs. I think that if politicians were the ones who sent their sons and daughters to the front line, instead of the Royal Family, they would be a lot less keen on “boots on the ground.”
But that doesn’t mean I can’t line up behind the bikers of the Royal British Legion, and appreciate that I am free because thousands of good people are dead.
Last month I drove from Laon to the German border along the D18, the Chemin des Dames. In 1917 half a million men died here, fighting for possession of the ridge. It seemed impossibly trivial to be driving across the same ground, in my comedy French car, with my Portuguese dog, for no better purpose than to drink German beer with friends.
But back to Cambridge services! A cheerful day for a very serious cause. Because of the teething problems with the Lomax, and Shakey’s ongoing habit of being stung by large bees when in open-top cars, we’re a bit behind with getting out and about, so this was our debut.
We may have caused a small stir. An Italian tourist and a small boy wanted their photos taken with us and there was a significant amount of peering and muttering.
It is always a joy to ride with a police escort on the roads you ride every day. Red light? No problem, bikers – on you come. I thought we’d go the way I normally go to Madingley, which involves a duck across the A14 and some extreme filtering down the back roads past Madingley Hall, but no – we went right into Cambridge, down Castle Street, and back out again past Churchill College to the American Cemetery.
There was lots of waving and thumbs up from the tourists on the open top bus, the students who were graduating, and the locals who were out and about. There was also an elderly couple who had brought their folding chairs to sit by the road and their Union Flags to wave. I hope we gave you a good show.
At the cemetery, the pastor spoke to the theme of the Sermon on the Mount, while young cadets stood to attention and old soldiers held the Royal British Legion flags.
3,000 graves, and the wall of the missing commemorating another 5,000 US servicemen and women whose bodies were never found. It can be difficult for our veterans to get to Normandy to remember their fallen friends. How much harder, then, for the US veterans to get to Europe. I had not realised until this visit how important it is to be able to say yes, the Star Spangled Banner is still flying over the land of the free, even if it is struggling slightly in the downpour.
I’m glad it was raining. Hardy lady bikers are supposed to be in control of themselves, so it was a good disguise. When I was at school, learning about the war, it was something fought by grown-ups. Now I am middle-aged I look at the stories of the dead and the missing, and they are not much more than boys. Most of them, these days, could be my sons.
One of the very famous set of 12 Epitaphs by John Maxwell Edmonds, used on the Memorial to the Battle of Kohima in India, says:
When you go home, tell them of us and say
For their tomorrow, we gave our today.
Can anyone’s tomorrow be worth that much death?