A UNIQUE occasion produced a unique response. So many people took up Bexhill Museum’s offer to mark Armistice Day amid its WWI commemorative exhibition that the gallery was packed.
Visitors observed the Two Minutes’ Silence surrounded not just by the photographs and artefacts of the “war to end all wars” but by the carefully-researched personal stories of many of those who took part.
A conducted tour of the museum by King Offa Primary School pupils was interrupted to allow them to take part. Clipboards in hand, educational projects part-done, the youngsters waited amid the sea of adults as the countdown began to 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month of the centenary year of The Great War.
From one of the symbolically-shattered trees arising from the sand-bagged focal point of the exhibition hang 331 tiny bottles each one bearing the name of a Bexhillian who gave their life for freedom between 1914 and 1918.
Had anyone stepped outside at that moment 100 years before, Dr James Kempshall told the assembly, there would have been silence – silence in dramatic contrast to the distant rumble of gunfire from the Western Front which had been a feature of Bexhill life for more than four years.
Dr Kempshall is the county council’s World War One project officer. He described the centenary as the last great opportunity to secure for posterity photographs, artefacts and family stories relating to the conflict.
As the minutes ticked down to 11am, museum curator Julian Porter put in context both Bexhill’s place in the war and that of the museum, which became a concert hall for troops.
Cooden Camp had been established when volunteers were responding to Colonel Claude Lowther’s call to raise Southdown battalions of The Royal Sussex Regiment. “Lowther’s Lambs” were followed by the Royal Artillery, by Australian and by South African troops.
The concept of Two Minutes’ Silence had been the post-war suggestion of the grieving father of the South Africans’ Major Nugent Fitzgerald.
Monochrome figures learning trench warfare at South Cliff and drilling in and around Egerton Park strutted silently on the exhibition’s film screen as the curator spoke of the Canadian Officers’ Training School established in the town.
Museum volunteer Peter Cole earned applause for filling in the gap before 11am re-counting the colourful life-story of Bexhillian and world air-speed record-winner Air Commodore Darcy Greig, a WWI bomber pilot who with his observer evaded capture after being shot down behind enemy lines.
The gallery fell quiet, everyone waiting for the boom of the maroon fired from the Town Hall.
Then young and old alike rose to remember the fallen.
As Julian Porter reminded them via the Kohima Epitaph written for those of a second world conflict: “For their tomorrow, we gave our today…”