As we mark Remembrance Sunday this year, it is more poignant than usual. 2014 marks the centenary of the start of the First World War and events including the stunning display of poppies at the Tower of London have captured the imagination of the entire country. I intend to visit this coming week and having purchased a poppy I will be able to keep that little piece of history and pass it down the generations of our family.
Introducing Private Milnes Scott
For me, this anniversary of the First World War represents a moving personal journey. Recently I visited the little village of Bucquoy in Northern France. Just outside the village is the Queen's Cemetery where 702 allied servicemen from the First World War are laid to rest.
Among them, my Great Uncle, 202283, Private Milnes Scott of 2nd/4th Battalion of the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Milnes , died in battle on 12th March 1917, aged just 21 years old. I am named Jonathan Milnes Scott in his memory and my grand-daughter has also taken the same middle-name as me.
I have always respected and admired the sacrifice that has been made in the defence of our country by the generations who have gone before me, but discovering a personal, family connection to the Great War was a very emotional and humbling experience.
My Great Uncle fought alongside his brother, my Grandfather, Freddie Scott. Freddie, fortunately made it home safely. But, he must have been bitterly upset to walk my own father to Dewsbury train station in 1941 seeing him off to fight another world war. Thankfully my father and other members of our family returned home in 1945.
A Little Piece of Home
In preparation for my trip to France, I visited the cemetery in our village of Earlsheaton just outside Dewsbury in West Yorkshire. There I collected soil from my families graves. I wanted to sprinkle a piece of home on the grave of my Great Uncle so he had some of us with him forever more and a piece of England that he never returned to.
Arrival in Arras, Northern France
Arriving in France I encountered my first taste of French hospitality and kindness. The aptly named Hotel Angleterre in the town of Arras kindy arranged a local taxi for my brother Matthew and I to visit the village of Bucquoy to see the final resting place of our Great Uncle 15km away.
We stopped at the local florist, where I encountered our second act of kindness. The florist could speak English only as good as I could speak French but together we managed to arrange a floral tribute of three red roses of England and three white roses of Yorkshire for my Great Uncle.
The French lady established from me that the roses were for 'An Englishmen of the war?" Oui, I replied, then there is 'Non Charge' she said.
I left the florist with a lump in my throat, not because this act of kindness saved me 40 Euros but because it demonstrated a deep respect for the sacrifice our boys made 100 summers ago.
I returned to the taxi and found my grammar school educated brother in conversation with our French driver. My brother's Del Boy French punctuated with the odd latin phrase and a bit of German seemed to be doing the trick and the conversation continued between them all the way to the cemetery. Anglo-French relations firmly cemented.
Arriving at the Cemetery
When we arrived, I was struck by the beauty and tranquil nature of the spot. Just outside the village, perched on a slight rise was the Queen's Cemetery, Bucquoy. In Plot A18 III laid my Great Uncle.
We told him who we were, why we were there and how proud we were of him and his colleagues who according to the war records had tried so valiantly to hold the line against a significant German counter-attack.
As we wandered around the cemetery alone with our thoughts, my brother and I called out to each other as we discovered other local Yorkshire lads that laid with their friends and fellow countrymen from all over the United Kingdom.
As I glanced across the landscape to the ridge just a few hundred yards away where my Great Uncle, Grandfather and their battalion made a stand against a German counter-attack, I noticed that the fields running right up to the edge of the cemetery were ones of poppies and spuds! My brother was made-up, being amongst other things a spud merchant back home he believed it was a sign and destiny.
Another Act of Kindness
The time came for us to leave. I viewed the landscape one last time and reflected on one of the most humbling, emotional and spiritual experiences of my life. I headed back to the grave of our Great Uncle, with my brother, to say our goodbyes.
Taking some photos at the front of the cemetery an old lady walked past and asked the taxi driver in French about our visit. I was deeply moved when the old lady grabbed my hands, smiled and said ‘Merci, Merci’ before walking back down the village. The third act of kindness from a genuinely grateful people.
The Lesson in our Acts of Remembrance
I glanced back before we closed the gate and the words of the poet Joseph Lee came to my mind, " Forget us not, O land for which we fell."
That is the lesson of our great acts of remembrance. Whether our fellow countrymen and women lie in the land or in the seas of our own country or around the world we must always remember them.
They fought to defend us, our heritage, culture, values, freedoms and our democracy. Let us hope that we keep telling this story for generations to come.