Have you noticed that in the last few mornings and evenings there has been a real nip in the air; it is getting colder; winter is drawing in.  It will be with us for a few months now.

There have been many spectacular visual reminders of the Great War, not least this year with the setting up of almost 900,000 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London to represent each of the British military service men who gave their lives during World War one.  The poppy has come to signify remembrance and the sheer number of these, coupled with its blood red colour, give some idea of the scale of atrocity during those awful years.  But for me the most poignant visual reminder of the war stands alone on Platform 1 at Paddington Station.  Here stands a great bronze statue, a single soldier on a tall plinth in full battle gear, replete with helmet, scarf and drape coat, reading a letter which had been sent to him from home.  I have never once walked past this statue without stopping to wonder at him.  He is a vast man, a giant; and yet he is just another infantryman, one of thousands.  He is a fighter, battle worn, exhausted, cold, hardened, aged before his years; yet he is simply reading a letter, taking time out, performing a quite normal daily act.  He carries on his shoulders plain, drab army clothing and in his hand a single page of writing; and yet he also carries the hopes and fears of all his friends and relatives back at home, those who have no idea about what he faces every single morning.  Who is he?  Is he one of my ancestors?  Or one of your ancestors?  Or an Old Bedfordian?  Or is he in fact just you and me?  An ordinary man, thrown into an extraordinary situation.  Could it have been you or me?  Here’s a thought – 756 Old Bedfordians were killed in the two world wars – that is more than is in the whole Upper School now.  474 were killed in the First World War – that is the equivalent to a whole school’s worth then.  A whole school killed; look around you.  And here’s another thought; if you go up into the Memorial Hall and look at the displays up there, as I know many of you have been, you will see some letters of an Old Bedfordian called Denzil Heriz-Smith who was one of those 474 who fought and died in the First World War.  Specifically, you will see the last letter he ever wrote to his father; perhaps the equivalent to what our unknown soldier will be doing half an hour after the moment his statue depicts. Here is an excerpt from Denzil’s last letter to his mother, a day before he died:

“I hope to get a letter from home ce soir, which will be nice if it comes.  I got a letter from Dad on the 6th, some from you on the 7th, both of which of course were very welcome.  Yes, I got the socks, buttons, etc, all safely, the former especially in the nick of time, as washing is a distinct problem nowadays on this front.  I haven’t had an Ousel yet, but I imagine it cannot be easy to do shopping etc with all the invalids….one of our fellows is back in Bedford at the moment of writing, a fellow who played in the St Paul’s team against our Bs, but he only joined the Battalion the day after I got back from my last leave.  Yes, I’m reduced to the weather now.  As a matter of fact, it is more important to me by far than at home, as it does affect one’s comfort seriously.  It is not half as cold now and the snow has started to melt a bit, which makes the roads a bit greasy to say the least.”

Denzil Heriz-Smith’s last letter home to his mother, therefore, betrays a peculiarly bland normality in a situation as far from normality as one could possibly imagine.

 So back to Platform 1 at Paddington Station: who is our statue? Is the clue in his positioning?  What is he waiting for?  While we wait, side by side with him, for the train to come in to its stop, he simply waits.   There is nothing obvious to wait for.  The next bombardment; the next attack; the next friend killed; the next moments of unimaginable fright; and, quite likely sooner rather than later, his own death.  He is alone; very far from home.  He has the one simple comfort of a letter.  This man is cold; he has every item of clothing he owns wrapped around him; it is all wet.  Hope must be wearing thin.

Have you noticed that in the last few mornings and evenings there has been a real nip in the air; it is getting colder; winter is drawing in.  It will be with us for a few months now.


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