Friday, 28 May 2010

Dunkirk

Seventy years ago this weekend occurred an event which was probably the greatest trial ever witnessed in this country - most of our armed forces were trapped at the channel coast ; surrounded by enemy forces they had absolutely nowhere to go but the beaches upon which they stood.
Of course, we have all heard of Dunkirk, and the phrase "Dunkirk spirit" has gone down in history and is still used for times when we all pull together in a crisis.
I have a special reason for remembering it because my only brother, Jack, was one of those soldiers. He was only nineteen and for many days we had no idea what had happened to him.
I was a very small child and these few days are among my earliest memories as my mother and father fought to keep things as normal as possible for my sake.
I read in Paul Simon's column in The Times yesterday about how much depended upon the weather, which was apparently kind to the British forces. It was cloudy and often foggy which meant that enemy aircraft could not see well enough to attack for much of the time.
Tellingly, I also read how Churchill estimated that only about forty five thousand of our troops would survive. In the event, three hundred and thirty eight thousand troops were evacuated from the beaches - thanks to a fleet of small boats which made the crossing and could get fairly near to the beach, so that the men could wade out. Those small boats have made the crossing again this weekend in an act of remembrance and celebration.
Don't you find it frightening that our politicians can play with lives like that - making an estimate of how many troops they might have left to continue the war? I suppose the same thing has happened throughout time and is still happening in wars and skirmishes today - the men who are planning it all are busy deploying troops as though they were playing with toy soldiers rather than mens' lives.
The day when we learned that my brother was safe (by a telegram from him when he landed in England) was a Sunday. When the telegram boy arrived my mother fainted away and my father shakily opened the envelope. I remember that moment vividly although I was very young. My older sister took charge of things, we all put on our coats and we all went to church.
Standing in the pew, holding my sister's hand, I remember looking up at her and seeing that she was crying - and as I looked at her she smiled down at me - I remember that smile.
Both my brother and my sister are long dead - Jack died in 1986 and Vera in the early 1990's - but those memories came back strongly yesterday when I thought about it all.
Some years ago I wrote a not very good poem about it - I think I printed it last year on the anniversary but I make no apologies for printing it again - it is important to remember.

On the return of a beloved brother from Dunkirk.

In the black fen soil
the village sinks
untouched by war
except by wireless
and its sons
"somewhere in France"
and a telegram
on a Sunday afternoon.

Rooks wage their own war,
clacking their crusty beaks.
Below them we walk...
father, mother, sister
and I,
through the newly mown grass
of the graveyard,
past our granfathers,
uncles and aunts,
on the soft sweetness of the
Summer evening -
to the church door.

Its cold, iron ring turns.
The door clangs open,
faces turn.
Inside is redolent with
old hymnals, candle-wax and
lilies heavy with pollen.

"Now thank we all our God"
They rise and sing, while we
kneel and give thanks
for his safe return.

My tiny hand inside my father's rough one,
I turn and look up;
I see the tears as my
sister looks down at me.
Those tears - and her smile -
stay in my heart for ever.

25 comments:

ewix said...

So beautifully written
and so deeply felt.
Can it possibly be seventy years?

acornmoon said...

I am crying myself reading this, it is almost unimaginable to those of us fortunate enough to have escaped war.

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Beautiful - touching - and as you say important. We must never forget.

Derrick said...

Hello Weaver,

I remember your poem and it is certainly good! I like the first stanza very much. I deplore the fact that the politicians and even the generals are well away from the front line!

willow said...

Beautiful poem and lovely tribute to your brother. I am only too thankful my two sons have not been forced into war.

I just watched Atonement last week. The Dunkirk scene is so terrifyingly real.

Hildred and Charles said...

Weaver, you bring tears to my eyes with your lovely poem and the emotion it expresses. It is familiar and heart-wrenching to those of us who experienced that war and the time of Dunkirk, and the importance of remembering those days, those men and the valiant spirit that arose in England is tremendous. Thank you from me, and from Charles.

Pondside said...

Blinking away tears in the early morning over here. Yesterday I listened to a CBC program about Dunkirk - the spirit of those small boat sailors should never be forgotten.

Mac n' Janet said...

I cried when i read your post and poem, how trivial it makes the world today seem.

Totalfeckineejit said...

Beautiful, poignant, powerful memories of the realities and consequences of war and a fine poem to express those feelings.

Teresa said...

I remember reading this last year... and was just as moved when I read it again now. I'm glad you're keeping the memories alive.

Bill said...

I remember hearing it said that one of Hitler's many mistakes was not trying hard enough to attack the fleeing British troops while he had the chance.

I think we should only deplore the calculations of politicians in wartime if we are prepared to stand up for alternatives. For example, unless we actively work for peace (e.g., off the top of my head, through the Quakers) then politicians are simply our representatives doing our dirty work. And when a country is fighting something like nazism, is that work dirty? I'm not sure. If I were a Quaker, I'd agonize about that.

Pat Posner said...

Beautiful post, Weaver

xxPat

Leenie said...

I'm not a scholar on British history but if the movie, Elizabeth The Golden Age, is close to true the weather saves the British Isles from Spain as well.

And I am glad. The Brits have proved time and again their strong and brave spirit. I can claim them as my ancestors.

U.S.A. celebrates Memorial Day this weekend to remember those who gave their lives to defend freedom.

And the photo of my son tiptoeing on the water was just good timeing.

Titus said...

Thank you so much, Weaver. I was trying to tell the boys about Dunkirk at dinner tonight, and could not get the words out because I was crying.
Which I am again.
Thank you. We really must never forget.

Karen said...

This is a beautiful, heartfelt poem, Weaver. We should never, never forget.

Cloudia said...

Bless you with warm Aloha from Hawaii, my dear Friend

Comfort Spiral

Robin Mac said...

Hmm, blogger seems to have lost my comment which I posted last night just after we had watched the re-enactment on our local news bulletin - such a miracle and so sad. I am so glad to have read your post Pat, the poem is definitely worth reposting. I often wonder how much of these events school children of today learn about. I hope a lot, but I fear very little.

George said...

This was a great remembrance of your brother, and the heartfelt poem is both beautiful and moving. As an American, I think I will have a greater sense of immediacy when I hear the mention of "Dunkirk" in the future.

ChrisJ said...

Your so right ! It is important to remember.

Fire Byrd said...

A poem well worth reposting. I got goose bumps reading it.
It is important not to forget,so that's why I went to Auschwitz two weeks ago.
And at the moment breathing easy till January when my youngest joins the army.

Dave King said...

Beautifully written and very, very moving, but too holy the moments for further comment from an outsider. Thank you for posting it.

Pam said...

A beautiful tribute to your family and the brave people of England. This is so poignant and very moving Weaver.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thank you for your comments. They make interesting reading - and I especially find Bill's view interesting - it is indeed a fact that the Nazi threat was terrible and needed to be fought - so does that make war right sometimes and not others. It is also important to remember that one man's terrorist is often another man's hero. Very complex problem that.

Heather said...

How the years have flown by Pat - it's hard to believe that 70yrs have passed since Dunkirk. Your poem is beautiful and I remember it from last year and you have voiced the thoughts of many of us.

Kim Palmer said...

What a beautiful touching post Pat! I am lucky in that I have never been touched personally by war, felt its horrors or the losses and devastation it brings. I hope it continues that way for us all.