Alice. September 1940.
‘Don’t forget we’re all going to Old Jack Tanner’s funeral tomorrow. They’re having a special evening service to allow as many people as possible to pay their respects.’
‘I haven’t forgotten, Barney. It’s not often we get to say goodbye to a local hero.’
‘The funeral is taking place at six-thirty. It’s family only in the church but we’re all allowed to line the path from the lychgate to the front porch. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t get half the town turning out.’
I walked slowly back to the farmhouse, deep in thought. Old Jack had been almost eighty. He had part-owned a small fishing boat that was kept at Margate. During June, Jack and his younger brother, Cecil, answered the government call and had met up with the rest of Operation Dynamo’s little ships at Ramsgate where they sailed across the channel to Dunkirk to rescue our army that was besieged there. Not satisfied with rescuing a dozen men, as soon as they had disembarked, he set off again to bring back another dozen, but on that trip, he caught a bullet in his back, a wound from which he never fully recovered.
On Wednesday evening, we arrived at the church to find hundreds of people lining the pavements waiting for the horse-drawn carriage carrying Old Jack’s coffin to arrive. Barney, Miriam, Stephen, Harriet and all of our remaining farm workers, found a place on the paved avenue that led from the lychgate to the church. By the time the hearse arrived, the crowd was three deep on either side of the path. We broke into spontaneous applause as Jack’s younger brother, Cecil, led Old Jack and his family down the hill towards the church. At the entrance, on either side, a dozen soldiers stood to attention and saluted as the coffin was carried in.
Forty minutes later, the soldiers saluted again as Jack was carried out. By now, as Barney had predicted, it seemed that half of the residents of the town were lining the pathway, or standing among the gravestones to see our own hero off.
No doubt, over the next few years, many a local hero will pass through the lychgate, or will be remembered in our prayers at the cenotaph on Armistice Day, but today was special, we buried our first.
I had managed to hold it together until, as the coffin passed us by, Stephen, our child evacuee, stood rigid and saluted as though the king himself was standing in front of him. I placed my hand on his back and wept as I thought about the fathers, husbands and sons that Old Jack had rescued and how grateful they and their families must be feeling to an old man who had done his bit. Then I thought about our farm’s own heroes, the lads who had signed up on the first day of war and had been sent off to fight and maybe die in some foreign land. We had heard nothing from any of them since July, when Benny’s pregnant wife received a heavily redacted letter, saying he was alive and well and looking forward to seeing us all again.
I’m not a particularly religious person, but as Old Jack’s coffin was lowered into his newly dug grave, I sent up a prayer to God, asking him to receive our hero into his care, then I begged him to ask his angels to keep an eye on our farm boys, wherever they were in the world.