An insight into the Armistice Centenary Service which was held at Westminster Abbey.

Hanita Ritchie, Local History Assistant at John Gray Centre, was invited to attend last month's Armistice Centenary Service, at Westminster Abbey and shares her thoughts on the occasion:

It has been one month since the nation marked the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that formally ended the First World War – Sunday, 11 November 1918. Since then, each November 11 has provided the opportunity to recognise the sacrifice made by so many men and women in the war that was meant to end all wars. It has also been one month since I was fortunate enough to represent East Lothian Council at the Armistice Centenary Service at Westminster Abbey!

This invitation came about as a result of working in partnership with Imperial War Museums (IWM) to commemorate the centenary of the end of World War 1 at the John Gray Centre in Haddington.

Since 2014, groups and individuals in various towns across the county have organised a range of events and activities to mark the anniversary of the Armistice. As a member of staff of the Local History Department, I had already spent two years working on an East Lothian WW1 Memorials database project which has been uploaded onto the John Gray Centre website. The East Lothian WW1 Memorials pages feature the names and some basic information on all the service personnel mentioned on most of the WW1 memorials in the county.

At the beginning of 2018, I had the idea to commemorate the Armistice Centenary through the medium of film. And so, in October and throughout November, the John Gray Centre Appreciation Club held a programme entitled “Cinema of Conflict: War Film Season and History Events”. As part of this programme, the Imperial War Museums provided access to some special films and historical images from their collection to be part of the “Cinema of Conflict” programme. The first was The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of The Tanks which is a little known masterpiece of British non-fiction cinema documenting the autumn and winter stages of the Somme campaign on the Western Front. Including the first ever scenes of tanks in battle, the film also conveys, with power and artistry, the difficulties experienced by the British Army as it fought over ground beset in a sea of mud.

In addition, IWM also provided two exclusive short films showcasing the remarkable stories of women working on the front-line. The first is entitled Women in Nursing and Medicine during the First World War. This is a composite of IWM’s newsreel footage showing women in nursing and medicine during WW1. And the second film, Deeds not Words: the Suffragette Surgeons of WW1 features rarely seen photographs, letters and archival film on the remarkable story of the Endell Street Hospital, run entirely by women. IWM also provided access to images from their collection featuring women’s work during WW1 which was displayed in the Haddington Library foyer.

Amidst the preparation for the Cinema of Conflict events, I received an email notification, much to my surprise, stating that IWM had put my name forward to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport of the UK Government for the Armistice Centenary Service at Westminster Abbey. When I mentioned this to colleagues and managers, the general consensus seemed to be something to the effect of “You have to go! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity!”

And so, there I was on Remembrance Sunday evening, sitting in a strategically chosen aisle seat, taking in the atmosphere and sublime architecture of the Abbey and looking out for various celebrities, dignitaries, royals and chatting with other ordinary volunteers whilst listening to an emotion rousing selection of music played by the RAF band. I felt honoured and proud to have been given this opportunity. I felt that I was not just representing East Lothian Council but also my family and friends back home in Malaysia and therefore, by extension, part of the Commonwealth. And when it was time to leave, I finally reached the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, adorned with wreaths of colourful flowers, and it again brought to mind the thought of all sacrifices made by young men and women from Britain, and the Empire. They shall not be forgotten.

Published: Monday, 17th December 2018