Watching the ceremony of remembrance at the Cenotaph today, 10th November 2013, the bright but cold day made one glad that the beat for the march past was a fast one.
These often elderly ex-servicemen, their carers and the members of their families who act as representatives have been standing for several hours before the march past begins. They have to muster early for the organisation of the parade and then they simply stand and wait. The ability finally to move and to move briskly must have been a marked physical relief for these doughty members of the armed services who come faithfully for a long as they can to pay tribute to the comrades they lost in the various conflicts in living memory.
And after the march past, they have still to stand in Horse Guards Parade until the entire parade of 7-8000 has gathered there.
This year, for Argyll, we remember Mull’s 20 year-old Private Robert McLaren from the Black Watch from Kintra in the Ross of Mull , who died 4 weeks into his service in Afghanistan, on 11th June 2009, in an explosion near Kandahar in Helmand Province.
His family, his close knit community, his school friends, his teachers and his comrades in the Black Watch will all be thinking of him today, a process replicated across the country as this necessary annual ritual brings all those lost in war to the minds of the still living.
And this year, for the first time in the UK, those who served in the dread Arctic Convoys, were wearing the Arctic Star medal in the parade for the first time. It was awarded earlier this year, 70 years late.
The Russian Arctic Convoy Museum project at Loch Ewe in Wester Ross played a very substantial part in the final acceleration of what has been so long a campaign for recognition of the uniquely challenging service with so appalling an attrition rate.
This brings a memory of an especial loss for this community of survivors. In May this year, 2o13, the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum, amongst its week long celebration of the achievements of the veterans, was given permission to hold a ceremony awarding the new Arctic Star medals at Loch Ewe – the very place many of the convoys gathered to sail for Murmansk and Arkhangel.
Scottish Veterans Minister, Keith Brown, himself a Falklands War veteran, attended the event, above; and took part in the presentation of the medals.
Two days before this week began, a veteran who had come to symbolise the campaign for recognition of the Arctic Convoy service, the redoubtable Jock Dempster from Dunbar died, on 5th May 2013.
Formery President of the Russian Convoy Club scotland, Jock was booked in for the week’s events at Loch Ewe – and had been there annually for many years – so his absence was keenly felt. We heard the announcement of his death on the car radio on 7th May as we drove north through Glen Docherty on the way to Aultbea for this very special week long commemoration.
There was one bright note in this – Jock Dempster had not only lived to see the award of the Arctic Star medal, he had actually already been presented with his own, in a special ceremony for a few at Number 10 Downing Street and by Prime Minister David Cameron. There is a ritual completeness here to the life of this Russian-speaking veteran who was little more than a stripling on the terrifying convoy to Murmansk, open to attack below, on and above the turbulent surface of this sea and temperatures that froze the breath in your throat.
With Tobermory the base for the training of the naval escorts for the Arctic convoys, this is part of Argyll’s own story.
It was noticeable in today’s parade at the Cenotaph, how very few of these World War II convoy veterans were able this year to attend.