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MEMBERS of Melksham’s Royal British Legion travelled to Belgium earlier this month to take part in the Great Pilgrimage 90 Parade.
Standard bearer Peter Hall, wreath layer Martin Pain and parade marshall John Smith, joined over 2,300 people for the largest parade organised by the Royal British Legion since 1928, when 11,000 First World War veterans and war widows were taken over to the Menin Gate by the then British Legion so that they could visit their loved ones graves. The event took place on Wednesday 8th August, exactly 90 years after the original pilgrimage took place in 1928.
The Melksham branch of the Royal British Legion had to raise £1,000 to send Peter and Martin on the tour. Parade marshall John Smith, who is the vice-chairman of the Melksham branch, travelled with the national office of the Royal British Legion to the event.
The Grand Pilgrimage 90 – marching forward down memories of our past
The Great Pilgrimage 90, The Royal British Legion’s biggest event in modern history consisting of two representatives from each of Great Britain’s registered branches took part in the Legion’s official Great Pilgrimage 90 WW1 battlefields and cemeteries tour.
The tour culminated on 8th August, with those representatives parading their branch Standard and a wreath to the Menin Gate for the One Hundred Days ceremony to commemorate the last 100 days of WW1 and represent an entire generation that served while defending their country.
So, on Sunday 5th August, 2,400 Royal British Legionnaires from every part of Britain embarked upon 60 buses to travel by ferry across the Channel to converge on Ypres, Belgium. Among this multitude was the Wiltshire contingent of 41, which contained the Melksham Branch representatives, Standard Bearer Peter Hall and Wreath Layer Martin Pain.
The pilgrims visited the World War 1 battlefields and museums, but it was the graves of our fallen warriors and those monuments dedicated to the almost one and a quarter million British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in action, of whom 54,896 bodies were never found, which was the focal point of the journey.
The pilgrimage culminated in flying and saluting with the Legion Standards and laying the wreaths at the Menin Gate to the poignant bugle notes of the last post that gripped the hearts of all present. These sons, husbands, fathers and relatives of many different ethnicities and faiths who left their shores never to return, whose lonely but not forgotten bodies lay buried in foreign fields have, by their sacrifice left us a message, a message which sadly, humanity has yet to fully understand and heed, a message of such vital importance that it could save us from the destructive wars that have plagued us since the beginning of recorded history. So, again the question is ‘what relevance has this to our world today, and what has this got to do with Melksham? Why does this constitute part of our local news?’
The answer is simple; if we do not remember the sacrifices of those who gave up their lives so that we could live ours, those who endured untold misery inflicted by guns, bombs, gas and disease, those whose families suffered the ultimate in sorrow in order that we could remain free, safe and secure within the bosoms of our own families and communities, then we are destined to remain on the treadmill of death and destruction for eternity.
We must as a civilized society honour those war dead, we must recognize the enormity of their battle against evil and domination, we must question ourselves as to whether we, the survivors and heirs of the gift of freedom, have lived up to the expectations of the dead and the victory they achieved; we must not betray that for which they died.
Do we remember that the hands of death among this Grand Commonwealth Army comprising British, Indian, African, New Zealand, Australian, Canadian, Caribbean and other units did not discriminate, all were equal in death regardless of rank or origin? If so, why is it today that racial and religious discrimination is still insulting and assaulting the very spirit of our nation? Did death favour Jew over Gentle, of Hindu over Sikh, of Christian over Moslem, of white over black, or light over dark, old over young, male over female, rich over poor? No! so what is the reason why brothers in death cannot leave behind brothers in life.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has at its very foundation a policy of equality in death, of equality of the value of all lives and this is reflected in all the war cemeteries where the most senior officers rest in peace next to the grave of private soldiers,. The huge monuments that rise up in around the battle fields carry carved upon their stone faces the names of all those who either killed or missing in action presumed dead, those comrades who never again saw the home shores or loved ones. They did not ask to die but the sheer malevolence of war and its instigators placed the indiscriminate mantle of death around those heroes that were loved, those whose loss left a gaping hole in the distraught hearts of their families and communities, those whom we must never forget because in their death we have survived.
The Royal British Legion understands the need for remembrance, the duty to not forget so that this monumental sacrifice can, through respect and teaching, strive towards a better, safer and hopefully a more egalitarian Nation. On this Grand Pilgrimage we learnt to renew our respect for the sacrifice of the soldiers from around the globe made on our behalf, to remember the efforts of the non combatants like the Chinese Labour Corp, like the volunteer nurses and doctors who laboured and often died in the effort to save lives and limbs under the constant threat of attack.
The notion that Death hath no favourites was reinforced and that the principles of loyalty and brotherhood must be held high up on the banner of faith and equality. This was apparent when looking down the avenues leading to the Menin Gate Monument at the sea of 1,200 fluttering Standards and 1,200 bright red poppy wreaths carried by The Legionnaires, male and female, old and young, active soldier or veteran or simply those dedicated few who were prepared to give up their time to remember those who ensured our freedom.
Marching past cheering crowds of Belgians and others tearfully shouting thank you, created an emotional tightness in the throats of even the toughest of the Legionnaires, the soul lifting music of the Royal Marine Band, and the tributes transmitted over the strategically-placed large screens added to the occasion, but nothing detracted from the message that each individual Legionnaire portrayed from heads held high, silently but clearly stating the motto of the Royal British Legion ‘Service Not Self’.
So one more time we ponder. What has this to do with Melksham? The answer lies in our past, just visit our own war memorial, just think about what type of community we want to live in and what type of society do we want our Nation to become. Have we all done our best to build upon the legacy of freedom and equality that they, our heroic dead bequeathed to us? That is what it has to do with us, all of us.
LEST WE FORGET
Melksham Royal British Legion branch