Today, many hundreds of people will line Whitehall as part of the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremony, and while you watch people standing in solemn silence or marching past in military precision – have you ever wondered what they are thinking at the time?
As a teenager and a member of the St Johns’ Ambulance, I used to participate in the Remembrance ceremony in Windsor town centre by the main church and war memorial. As a senior cadet, I had the task of representing the brigade and carried the flag along with other flag bearers from military groups etc.
While the people standing around would doubtless be thinking somber thoughts of remembrance – I can assure you that the participants are rarely thinking such thoughts.
Imagine it – you are there in front of loads of people, instructed to follow a set pattern of actions and desperately trying not to screw it up.
As a flag bearer, I had to carry the huge flagpole and flag, and a solid wooden flagpole plus flag is incredibly heavy – especially for this weedy little teenager. Yes, we had a shoulder supported holster to pop the flagpole into to take the bulk of the weight, but we also had to wear white gloves and hold the pole in a ceremonial manner which is actually quite uncomfortable.
Your key worry throughout is that the cotton gloves will slip on the smooth flag pole and you will end up dropping it on the heads of the people in front of you – so you end up gripping that flagpole tighter and tighter as the morning progresses.
So, you spend most of the morning in a mild state of panic – while the people around think you are deep in somber reflection for the war dead.
The worst is to come though – at the Windsor ceremony, when the last post is sounded we would take the flagpole out of the holster and then hold it out in front of us horizontal as a mark of respect.
As everyone else bows their head in remembrance, we stand there with our arms shaking from the exertion of holding this incredibly heavy flagpole out in front and silently begging the bugaler to hurry up. At last, he finishes – and then with exhausted arm muscles, we have to somehow now lift that flag pole back up and pop it back into the holster and carry on with the ceremony.
The Windsor branch of the St Johns’ Ambulance was supposed to share the duty with the nurses alternating each year – but the girls never put anyone forward and as the senior cadet officer I spent four years carrying that flagpole at remembrance services.
On the Monday morning afterwards, I would go to school and would be barely able to lift a pen as my arms were in agony from the exertion the day before.
Still, my aching arms were just a tiny price compared to those who died on the battle fields of war.