We stand on the doorstep of 61 Whitehall, a grand stone doorstep for a grand old government doorway. The words Royal Ministry on a brass plate by the black door. A bright, cold November morning in London and we are here for the War Widows’ ceremony commemorating the contributions of men and women made in military conflict, including their own lost loved ones. A cup of coffee and some fleeting conversations while everybody gathers, then we are out in the cold sunshine again.
The widows line up in a column, several people wide. A cohort of people that spans generations and places. A few of the older women are bent over, white-haired, tiny but determined. Later, someone tells us about the younger women who have more recently been made widows, they are carefully positioned in the middle of the rows to be supported and protected by the others. It’s a long line of people, a physical testament to the losses of all those conflicts, from World War Two onward. There is something huge about this group — because they represent so many missing. And because their burden has been so heavy, for so long.
A Scottish marching band arrives: the Southern Highland Pipe Band, their music swirls down the stone avenues, the bagpipes and the giant heartbeat of the bass drums. They accompany the column of widows who walk slowly up Whitehall. We are at the back of the column, standing a little apart to show respect. As we all walk, the crowd which is thousands strong watch quietly. Many people take photos, a few wave flags carrying the poppy symbol. One woman claps as we pass. People are quiet and attentive, often the faces are full of emotion.
We pass the centotaph, carved with three words The Glorious Dead. The column doubles back to face the Cenotaph, the empty tomb. A strong wind blows and late leaves tumble from the trees. Suddenly the faces of the women look stark and wild, I see tears on some faces.
The priest says prayers, there is a hymn, with subdued singing, snatched off by the wind. And then the old words, half-remembered from such ceremonies, from old films, “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old, age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”
“We will remember them!” The reply from hundreds of voices, some of them shaking with strength of feeling. There is a silence, for thought and then the single bugle call of Reveille, sorrowful as blues and yet undismayed. And then the amazement of the bagpipes, the great drone like a song from elsewhere, it’s difficult to believe that people make such an earthly cry. Lois and I look at each other, unable to say anything.
We walk back, dazed by the power of this memorial, surrounded by a thunder of drums. As we walk I have the strangest sensation that we are marching through the past, connected to all those other marching feet following the drum. But at what cost comes glory?
After, we return to 61 Whitehall, with this group who we’re just starting to know, we climb three flights of spiralling stairs, upward to the vast military library. It’s a room containing thousands of books, some centuries old, and all of them trying to piece together what happens in a war. Strategy, tactics, empire, terrorism, torture, espionage hardware, software. And the question of justice — I see a copy of the Iraq War report, several volumes of it. But the people we are here with have the quietest military history of all, quieter than the spies, or the secret ops: the story of War Widows has simply not been told.
We will remember them.
Philip Davenport writing about our work as part of the project War Widows’ Stories. arhur+martha are making an embroidered quilt and a collections of poems with war widows.
With special thanks to the War Widows’ Association who so kindly welcomed us to the event.