‘Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?
‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee’.
Written by John Donne in the early 17th century, these, in Meditation 17, are some of the best known and most powerful words spoken on the underlying relationship of one person to another – of ‘enemies’ and of the living to the dead.
War remains unreal to most of us. It is unreal even to those who lose family and friends to it. It is not unreal to those who fought and fight it. It remains largely their private and fundamentally uncommunicable knowledge.
Argyll, this year, saw 20 year old Private Robert McLaren of the Black Watch killed in an explosion in Kandahar in Afghanistan and buried on 29th June 2009. This ceremony, at Creich Chrich in Bunessan, near his home place of Kintra on the Ross of Mull, is thought to have been the first military funeral on the Isle of Mull since World War II.
In that war there were men who sailed to the Arctic in the unimaginable conditions and dangers of the Russian Convoys. Many of these convoys gathered at Loch Ewe in Sutherland. Many were shepherded through Argyll waters.
Many of those who served on the Arctic Convoys were trained at HMS Western Isles under Vice-Admiral Sir Gilbert Stephenson, in Tobermory, on Private Robert McLaren’s home island of Mull.
We have been collecting and publishing some of the stories of those convoys by some of their survivors with whom we have been fortunate to make contact.
This year, we have asked some of them to tell us what they personally think about on Remembrance Day. (Their names link to their stories.)
Today, at the moment of the publishing of this tribute, and as the pipes and drums of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders play the Skye Boat Song, Jock Dempster, a founder of the Russian Convoy Club in Scotland, will be at the Cenotaph in London, leading a group of his fellow veterans .They are Bill Dudley, Ken Luttman, Ralph Bishop, Bill Edmunds, Eddie Grenfell (who will be 90 in January and will be supported at the Cenotaph by Jock’s wife, Maggie), B. Hall, Ron Harris (supported by his grandson), Jack Jones, Jim Kerr, Arthur King (supported by his carer), Frank Reynolds and Frank Saunders (supported by his wife).
Jock, who served in the Merchant Navy on the convoys and who was in the RAF, says: ‘My initial thoughts at the Cenotaph will primarily be of the 3000 seamen who perished in the icy waters of the Russian Polar Region – in particular the hundreds who lost their lives on the two convoys I sailed on.
‘There is a stillness, an indescribable sensation, an atmosphere which pervades the immediate area. There are around 14.000 veterans stood ready to march past the monument, paying homage and respect to those we remember. There are thousands of spectators lining the pavements but one has the sensation of being alone with ones own thoughts.
‘I always ask myself that, if there was indeed a life thereafter, what would the many millions of those who fought and unselfishly gave their lives for peace and freedom throughout the World think about the prevailing situation. The peace and tranquility in the world which they fought for has been replaced by tempestuous anger and turmoil – the fighting goes on and on – opposing factions – political, cultural and religous – extend steel fists rather than hands of friendship.
‘We shout rather than quietly discuss our differences. Those who made the supeme sacrifice might well ponder was it worth it. I don’t doubt that they would feel let down’.
Roy served on the destroyer, HMS Zambesi, one of the convoy escort ships and was with Zambesi when she played a leading role in the evacuation of the Norwegian island of Soroy, north of he Lofotens. He says: ‘I have never played much part in Remembrance Days, although I have very clear memories of it from my earlier life. Working in the city of Manchester in the late 40′s/early 50′s, traffic and everything stopped at 11.00am.
‘Perhaps some have lost touch with it since it moved to a Sunday and away from the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month?
‘I find poppies, not only remembrance ones, but even more so those growing wild, very nostalgic. Perhaps that is not the right word because obviously I was not in WW1, but that is where they take my mind.
‘I find watching the London ceremony very emotional and have laid the wreath at the local war memorial once. Our WEA branch lays one and the usual suspect couldn’t make it. It is the only time I have ever worn my medals and thought perhaps it is something you should do once before you go.
A much older friend lays the British Legion wreath and, after the police wreath, they lead. He now finds it hard to walk well in a straight line without someone next to him, so I joined him at the front and my son turned up to see me and take a snap’.
Derek Hirst also served on HMS Zambesi, was with the ship in the evacuation of Soroy and sailed from Scapa Flow to liberate Bergen at the end of the war.
An adventurous leisure sailor since, he says: ‘I think, for veterans, Remembrance Day will always evoke feelings of some sort.
‘For me I still remember vividly coming out of Kola Inlet with the convoy screen and seeing one of our escorts, HMS Bluebell, blown to pieces, knowing one of my greatest school friends, Sub Lieutenant Fahy RNVR, was amongst those lost. In fact there was only one survivor.
‘The tragedy was that he had been on the Denbeigh Castle which was torpedoed on the way into Kola Inlet but there all the ships company were saved and then split up between the rest of the escorts. My friend drew the short straw’.
Jimmy McHugh, right, was regularly sunk and constantly in the thick of battle. His first ship HMS Achates was sunk by the Hipper. He was transferred to HMS Nairana and fought the Scharnhorst in the battle of the Barents Sea. Later he served in HMS Zenith (the new and renamed HMS Wessex) in the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla with the Home Fleet. He says: ‘I always think of what happened on the day the Achates was sunk in the Barents Sea.
‘I think of the Captain and the officers on the bridge who were killed. I think of my shipmates who died then. And I think of other actions. The Cenotaph brings it all back.
‘I also remember the detail of my job as a gunlayer in a turret on the starboard side of Achates – moving the turret and swinging the gun by its two handles to the position required by the bridge and using my four fingers to fire it when the order came.
‘I couldn’t see anything of what was happening from inside the turret. Sometimes it’s better not to see’.
The image of poppies above is cropped from a photograph by Andrew Dunn and used here under the Creative Commons licence.