On Friday 13th September five people squeezed past an enclosure of roadworks and stood on a pedestrian island in Waterloo Place to conduct a Remembrance Service in the rain. Japanese tourists pointed and took photographs, cab-drivers slowed and stared out of their windows, but for the most part London only glanced and walked by.
Of course they did. It wasn’t November and this wasn’t the Cenotaph, and Remembrance stops at a hundred years. Who cares about the fallen of the Crimean War?
I realize how fatuous that sounds – I can see it as I’m typing it. The Crimean War was 159 years ago, the men are long dead, and what possible good will it do them to stick up another chunk of stone? Perhaps the honest answer is ‘nothing’ – but in that case what’s the point of Remembrance Day? What’s the point of all the flags and ceremony at any military funeral? ‘When they’re dead they’re done with’ – is that it? Give them a decent grave, and that’s enough?
|Original British cemetery at Cathcart's Hill 1855|
They’re not alone, and the cemeteries of our French and Turkish allies suffered a similar fate in the dark years. But the Iron Curtain is down, Ukraine is independent and open, and everything should be different now. I knew memorials had been built and when I made a research trip to Crimea in 2011 I was very much looking forward to seeing ours.
This is ours.
I came back home with a mission, and I’ve been on it ever since. It’s been a long and frustrating journey, with door after official door slammed in my face. War dead since 1914 are properly looked after, and there is an entire Commonwealth War Graves Commission to ensure they’re respected abroad – but before 1914 is ‘history’ and nobody cares. Monuments in this country have a special War Memorials Trust to watch over them – but Ukraine is ‘foreign’ and not their concern. Military charities like the British Legion have the living to look after, and can’t be expected to extend their help to the dead. So many organizations, so many different responsibilities, but in each case there’s a loophole that allows the Crimean War to slip through.
But I wasn’t the only person who cared. While I was firing off letters as ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’, our Embassy at Kyiv was busy coming up with an answer. The Ukrainian government had already given us a new obelisk at nearby Dergachi, and the plan now was to expand this into a proper memorial, with a new and simple ‘Place of Contemplation’ at the original site of Cathcart’s Hill. Defence Attaché Colonel Jeremy Burnell was determined to make this happen, and was already working on the official permissions that would prevent anything like the Ivanov debacle ever happening again.
|Colonel Jeremy Burnell, Royal Marines|
What he didn’t have was money. Embassies have a small fund for maintenance of war graves, but nothing that could possibly allow them to build one. Jeremy could commission plans, he could work with Colonel Peter Knox of the Crimean War Research Society to obtain details of all the regiments that needed to be honoured, but beyond that he could not go.
It was History Girl Michelle Lovric who broke the deadlock. Sitting calmly on her balcony overlooking the Thames, she said to me gently, ‘You’re not the only writer who cares about history, you know. Why don’t you try the Historical Writers’ Association?’
Their official involvement broadened the affair into a national appeal, and now it became possible for the CWRS to sponsor it as the designated registered charity. It’s the CWRS who have provided the bank account, their volunteers who’ve built the Appeal website and are informing every step we take, but it was still the little HWA who made the first move. Writers and lovers of history – people like us.
I should have known. In my very first post for the History Girls I questioned the integrity of making a living by ‘digging up the dead’, and justified it to myself by arguing that we did it out of love. Now I know I was right, and we’re going to prove it by honouring the memory of those we are laying to rest.
We did it all. Jeremy laid a wreath for the British Embassy, Glenn laid one for the CWRS, and I laid one for the HWA. We read aloud a poem by a Red Army soldier who’d been stationed at Cathcart’s Hill in 1939, and performed Binion’s Act Of Remembrance. Steve Fletcher stood in the rain and played ‘The Last Post’ and ‘Reveille’ for men whose memorials are silent in November.
There were many years’ neglect to make up for, but when I laid the flowers on the stone it felt as if I were back in Crimea and tending those forgotten graves.
Next time I hope I will be. We’ve only just started and there’s a long way to go, but if people are kind, then one day our new memorial will be built, and we will have a full and proper service for those men whose glory Tennyson promised would never fade.
You can donate to the Crimea Appeal here.
Photographs of wreath-laying by Shen Drew, whose site is here.
Steve Fletcher can be found here.
A L Berridge can be found just about anywhere except here.