Acts of remembrance
South Tyneside commences weekend of quiet contemplation
It was 93 years ago today that the guns on the Western Front fell silent at the end of the Great War at 11:00, it was supposed to be a war that ended all wars, sadly we were only entering another century littered with conflicts around the globe. There was no real lasting piece after the First World War which sowed the seeds of further nationalist ambitions which led to a more damaging global war only 25 years later, and since then despite the formation of the United Nations mankind has seen to it that regional conflicts continued, and continued to involve British personnel right up to the present day. The signing of the Armistice with the German delegation in Foch’s private carriage in the forest of Compiegne should have been the signal that war was a futile measure in settling political and national tensions, however the very same train later carried Hitler and his coterie through the Clairiere to demand the surrender of the French in 1940.
Today in South Tyneside we began to reflect on history, and its effect on generations of Geordies who answered the call to serve their country. Shops and offices fell silent for two minutes, motorists in some cases stopped their cars to observe this tradition of ours, schoolchildren involved themselves taking avail of the opportunity to learn from older relatives and neighbours. One of the interesting things that they came to appreciate is that wars are not only fought by professional and conscripted soldiers, sailors, and airmen, they are also fought by factory workers, nurses and doctors, carpenters, welders, ambulance drivers, and a whole host of others. Included amongst them will be merchant seamen who in time of conflict have provided the lifeline which kept Britain alive, kept us fed, kept us armed, and unfortunately kept our foes busy. South Shields has a long maritime association, not only did we build and repair ships, we also provided the men who operated them, we lost them too in large numbers. As a seafaring community we are always wary and respectful of the seas and oceans, they hold dangers of their own, however these dangers were magnified many times over in times of war as countless flotillas and convoys brought sustenance from across the Atlantic and provided much needed help and support to the Russian war effort during the second global conflagration. Even in more recent conflicts we have called upon our merchant navy to help support our armed services and put themselves at increased risk of loss of life, the Falklands War was a major illustration when ships taken up from the trade, and others, received heavy damage at the hands of Argentinian Super Etendards.
The recent troubled history of the Missions to Seamen and the Flying Angel Club at the Mill Dam in South Shields highlighted just how strongly we all felt attached to the men and women of the seas, yet it takes troubled times to spark our fervour in supporting them, but at times such as today we mark our respect for their efforts and sacrifices over the last 70 years and more, we pay tribute to those brave souls consumed by the tempestuous waters as they did their duty, remembering them with as much pride and honour as those in the uniformed services. They served as well as any, and served so that South Tyneside can enjoy the tolerance and freedom that would not be ours if we had lost that titanic struggle against Nazi Germany.
Although the memorial to our merchant seamen is relatively young, we are now building up a strong presence as we gather around it on Armistice day every year, crowds and participation grows, and I wonder if some day it might equal and accompany the Remembrance Sunday service that we have at Westoe Cenotaph. Today we held a service of remembrance and laid poppy wreaths at the memorial in the Mill Dam, the service was conducted by the Revd. Andrew Bealing who has had long and close connections with the Mission to Seamen (Seafarers), we saw the Royal British Legion honouring the dead of the non uniformed servants of the UK, old soldiers be-medalled steadfast and straight paying homage to lost comrades, we saw possibly the last members of the Russian Convoy Club in their white berets, we saw the Deputy Mayor Cllr. Eileen Leask and the Deputy Mayoress Cllr. Olive Punchion laying wreaths on behalf of the borough, I saw former councillors and colleagues, but most importantly I saw children. By bringing school children to these events we once more plant seeds of hope that they will not be standing in their old age on a cold damp November morning, planting a wooden cross honouring the memory of one of their friends.
We must continue to carry that hope in our prayers.