Why do we Brits love to remember our great military failures? Charge of the Light Brigade; Dunkirk; A Bridge too far, Arnhem. (And yes, I know, we also celebrate Waterloo, Battle of Britain and D-Day.) Also interesting that we are unique in having no specifically military music- just playing ordinary music in a military manner. It’s a sort of military modesty which we do not share, for example, with the Germans or Americans.
As soon as the House rose on Tuesday, I went off with a gang of 30 or so MPs and Peers for a quick battlefield tour of Arnhem. I try to go to the Remembrance Sunday outdoor service at the former RAF Blakehill Farm, near Cricklade, from where many of the gliders on Operation Market Garden in 1944 were launched, so I was keen to see where they had landed up. It was good to go to the very landing site and to see the fine model glider which commemorates it.
There were elements of disaster, of course. Many of the gliders crash landed; radios did not work; the Brits under Lord Carrington (who died only last week) did not move swiftly enough forward to relieve their besieged compatriots 10 miles up the road at Arnhem. The best laid plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy. But despite the ultimate failure of the Operation, it is good to remember the sheer heroism of so many who took part in the battles – the glider pilots, the American paras rowing over the Rhine using their rifle butts instead of paddles under intense enemy fire; the paras who fought and died so valiantly; the eccentric British officer who carried an umbrella so that he could not be mistaken for a German. These and so many other fine tales are worth recalling.
And a solemn visit to the magnificently maintained War Cemetery is a salutary reminder of the awfulness of war. It was heart-breaking to see how many of the fallen were teenagers or in their early twenties. What a dreadful waste of life. I was honoured, as the Chairman of the All Party Group for the Armed Forces to lay a wreath at the simple Lutyens designed War Memorial.
“Their name liveth for evermore.”