One of my proudest moments each year as the Member of Parliament for Tunbridge Wells is laying a wreath on Remembrance Sunday at the War memorial. This year's commemoration, last Sunday, was as ever, meticulously organised; and on a cold but sunny morning it was wonderful to see a crowd that filled the road in front of the memorial united in tribute to those who gave their lives for our freedom.
Since I joined the Cabinet, I have been able to be present on Whitehall for the national service, led by the Queen at the Cenotaph. Two years ago I had the privilege of officially reviewing the civilian services on parade there – the police officers, firefighters and ambulance men and women whose bravery, dedication and service in times peace as well as times of war is too easily taken for granted. But as great an honour it is to be at the London event, it is our local ceremony that most powerfully brings home to me the debt we owe to the people who lived and worked in places that are so familiar to us – homes to which they never returned.
Many of us, on Remembrance Sunday, begin the day at the Southborough parade which takes place before the main one in Tunbridge Wells. The Southborough War Memorial has one of the most beautiful settings of any in the country – in the corner of Southborough Common, by the cricket field close to St Peter's Church and shaded by magnificent oaks in their final autumn colours.
Yet what is engraved on it stands in contrast to the idyllic setting. Out of the total of 252 names, 207 men of Southborough and High Brooms who fell in World War I are listed, and then 45 who were killed in world War II and other conflicts. Scarcely a family was spared, with many names still familiar locally today. Twenty four of the names are from among the 155 men who perished in the sinking of HMS Hythe near the Dardanelles on 28 October 1915 – a tragedy further commemorated in a marble carving now in St Matthew's Church, High Brooms.
The Tunbridge Wells memorial contains 972 names, and I have always found its arresting, fine statue of a soldier standing alert and ready for combat both powerful and moving. It raises up a man rather than an abstraction. In doing so, it conveys wider themes of courage and duty as being of us, rather than separate from us.
A bigger crowd gathers every year, and during my time the previous weekend selling poppies in the Royal Victoria Place with the British Legion, it seemed to me that the desire to be part of the commemoration was as strong with younger people as it was with the generation who had experienced service at first hand.
As each year goes by, fewer of the people who defended us when we were in peril are left among us.
The columnist Simon Jenkins wrote in a newspaper last week that it is time to draw a line under what he called the "wars of the 20th century" and to begin to forget. I could not disagree more. We must never forget the sacrifices, not only of those who died, but of those generations who endured the horrors and deprivations of war to allow us to live the lives that we live today.
There must be no complacency, no wishful thinking that our way of life is unassailable. In whatever way each of us can, we must always be ready to stand up for freedom and strive for peace.
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