What’s Past is Prologue
“I loved yesterday,” said Sara on 12 November, and she was talking about the Remembrance Day Service at Dunkeld Cathedral on 11 November 2018. In the UK, the Armistice is traditionally marked on the 11th, as it used to be in the USA – it is not a holiday. At 11 a.m. during the normal workday, whatever the day of the week, a two-minute silence is held nationally to remember the Armistice that ended World War I, and to remember those who served throughout the past century. There is a worship service held on the Sunday closest to the 11th, known as Remembrance Sunday.
Coincidentally, this year Remembrance Sunday fell on the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, and it was marked nationwide and throughout Europe. (The ceremony under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, with world leaders gathered side by side, is AMAZING. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRFRsX-KhWE)
Because it was such a special moment in 1918 when the church bells in the UK rang out to mark the end of the war, there was an effort to ring bells wherever possible, and that was where we came into things. We rang “half-muffled” before the service at Dunkeld (muffles on the clappers cause every other stroke to sound quietly, as an echo, a symbol of mourning), and with the bells open after the service (the muffles off, the bells in full voice, ringing for life and joy).
I am sure there is no place I would rather have been than Dunkeld Cathedral in Scotland on this particular day. For the service, the choir started off singing “They Shall Not Grow Old” and then a piper began “The Lament,” left the church, and as the sound of the pipes faded into the distance, it was eleven o’clock, a hundred years on from 1918. Complete silence in the old cathedral for the customary two minutes, eleven o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a hundred years to the day and minute that the guns stopped.
It made me sad – makes me sad – (“Don’t say it!” Sara exclaimed, when I began to tell her this. “Of course twenty years later –”) Of course it is nearly twenty years since I first went to a Remembrance service at Dunkeld, in Scotland, and the veterans are all gone.
They were eighty and ninety when I first came here and now they are gone.
But it was a lovely service. They structured it around readings of stories by local people about local boys who were killed in the war – very focused on the First World War. Someone’s grandfather, someone’s father. A former headmaster read aloud the Headmaster of Breadalbane Academy’s address from 1921 on the dedication of a memorial plaque to former pupils. “Some day these will just be names, but to me they are individuals, young boys I knew.” One woman had inherited a box of letters from her grandfather, killed before his child (her parent) was born, and his fiddle, which he’d taken along with him to the battlefields of France. She’d had the fiddle restored, and a local musician had written a piece for her grandfather and played it on that fiddle there in the service.
And it was incredible. Because a musical instrument is a voice, not just an object that spoke in the past, but that spoke for someone – and still speaks. This fiddle was that dead soldier’s voice. It was there in the trenches and it is here now and it spoke there and it speaks here.
The tune was like a traditional folk tune – a Strathspey – and it was just beautiful.
When it was done, nobody knew what to do. There was a ripple of scattered applause. It quieted down. Then behind us, someone began to clap loudly and everyone joined in.
After the service, we bell ringers rang a quarter peal of Plain Bob Doubles, and then we all had lunch together. And in the evening we watched Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, in which original footage from the trenches has been colorized and speed-corrected – and to complete the documentary, there is a voice-over soundtrack of actual veterans, recorded some years ago when they were alive as old men. The immediate urgency of the restored and enhanced film was stunning.
Here’s the list of ringing events connected with the Armistice Centenary – quite impressive:
And scroll down here for a map showing ringing-related events throughout the UK: