Monday, 14 November 2011

Over seven million Britons were in tears by 9pm last night

Edward Burrell
Many of them would have been in tears for much of the previous hour. In fact, if any sentient adult failed to cry while watching the special Remembrance Day edition of Antiques Roadshow from the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire on BBC One, there’s something very wrong with them.

People had been asked to bring along military mementos of their own war-time experiences or those of relatives. As I tend to start blubbing at any account of grace under pressure I gritted my teeth and determined not to, this time.

Fat chance.

I’d managed to keep it together for 20 minutes, until the final segment, which (for those of you who missed it and would like to catch the programme on iPlayer), starts  52’15” in.

It was the story 21-year old Edward “Teddy” Burrell, a baby-faced, curly-haired, air gunner who was shot down over Germany in a Halifax bomber in August 1942, three weeks after his wife, Maisie, had given birth to their daughter - whom he had never seen. We saw a photograph of Teddy and Maisie on their wedding day - a terribly nice, impossibly young-looking couple of English kids.

Three months before he died Teddy wrote his wife a letter to be opened in the event of his death, in which he apologised for deceiving her. Teddy – who was evidently from an ordinary background - had been in a relatively safe job as a ground crew member, but had volunteered for bombers at a time when huge numbers of air-crew were being lost in action. But he hadn’t told Maisie what sort of planes he was flying in – presumably because of the terrible attrition rate. 

Maise Burrell, who died last year, had only ever shared the letter with her daughter and her grand-daughter, Rachel, but in her Will had asked for it to be made public. Rachel Smith – who was also evidently very nice – was asked to read sections of the letter on the programme, which she just managed to do without completely breaking down. The sentiments were so noble and tender – and so well-expressed – that even the interviewer had to dry her eyes and compose herself afterwards.

I was going to go on and make a number of political points – but that would be cheap.

Instead, at the risk of sounding horribly mawkish, I’ll just admit that, as a result of the programme, I visited our local church today to light candles and give thanks for the fact that my father,  against all the odds, managed to survive one hundred missions as a bomber pilot – and to say thank-you to the quietly heroic Corporal Teddy Burrell.  


  1. This year, we seemed to take the Remembrance Day and the lead up to it far more seriously than in previous years. It may be the fact that we continue to have brave young boys losing their lives fighting for their country, it might be a reaction to the activities of Bonkers Beardies against the Crusaders (or whatever they're called), it might even be the fact that the last of the WW1 soldiers is now gone. I was struck by the immaculately observed two minute silence where I work. I looked around at young colleagues who, unlike our generation, probably had no family connection with WW2 and felt pretty much the same emotion as you did. Not mawkish at all.

  2. Great story and I reacted like everyone else. I was however less supportive of the chap earlier on in the programme who suggested that a 1st world war private had been sentenced to death for falling asleep on sentry duty because of the class prejudice of the officer who found if expecting soldiers to stay awake on watch was somehow snobbish and petty minded. The soldier's sentence was commuted and he served with distinction at the front for the rest of the war.

  3. I was just remarking the other day, Ex-KCS, how odd it was that Remembrance Day - which was being seen as a mawkish wallowing in past "glories" not that long ago - has been so assiduously observed this year. My wife reckons it's the Wootton Bassett effect, especially the "Royal"ing of its name - people have had their natural human desire to honour those who've sacrificed their life in the service of their country validated. And I agree that representatives of alien cultures demonstrating their contempt for the host culture has helped remind people that being British is something they should be bloody proud of and should have no fear of celebrating openly. I think the fact that so many British soldiers are black helps. I also think you're on to something when you suggest it may have with the passing of the last WWI serviceman - WWII seems to have moved centre-stage and, whatever Alan Clark thought, there can be few doubts about the need to fight it.

    Sapper, I reacted just like you to the way the Rev Michael Austin used the story of his uncle, infantryman Frank Ridgwell, to indulge in some anti-toff sneering. Was he suggesting the officer had deliberately lied about Ridgwell falling asleep in order to get him killed because he was common? Really? Naturally, the Daily Mirror chose to highlight Ridgwell's story (admittedly a good one). Seems to me everyone behaved as they should have - Ridgwell's commuted sentence of five years penal servitude was dropped within nine months and he was awarded a Certificate of Valour.

  4. I was thinking about commenting that Norman Tebbit had made the same point as me in his D Tel blog but desisted in case some of your correspondents might infer that he and I were one and the same person. Way ter go, Tebbs!

  5. You protest too much, Norman - please feel free to comment here whenever the fancy takes you. You - with your advice to whingers to get on their bikes to look for work and to grow their own vegetables rather than whining about the cost of food - are officially a hero of this blog, in perpetuity.