My first visit to the Dunkirk Memorial was at first light, late September, over a decade ago. It was atmospheric beyond sombre as both sun and a full moon were in attendance through the dawn mist. My sister and I paid our respects to our Grandfather – Sgt Frederick Beer – who fell on 7th June 1940.
He was thirty four.
Within twenty four hours, our dear father – Howard Beer – was dead.
Sixty Eight and with a lifespan compromised by complications from a heart irreparably damaged in childhood by rheumatic fever. Even with that knowledge, we were utterly unprepared for his sudden passing. A night to remember for hideous reasons. Am I over it? No. The question is not relevant. I will never get over it.
Fast forward to Boxing Day 2019 and I am taking my family to meet Granddad. We are en route to Calais from Ghent so a five minute detour is all it takes. One could easily speed through the area on the featureless Autoroutes and be none the wiser… The teens are none the wiser, while I have been quietly consumed with grief having arranged this secret side-trip. Memories of Dad have been popping, unannounced, into my consciousness. Strange ghosts. I could have sworn I caught sight of him at the Christmas Markets, heard his laugh in a bar, smelled his Dad funk. (Although I suspect I am starting to develop my own version of that old fella odour.)
We empty out of the Mini, zip our coats and walk a few short metres to the Memorial. A sizeable cemetery, with the British section segmented. If you have travelled the back roads of northern France, you’re only too aware of the too-numerous-mention memorials to the fallen. This one is only more poignant for personal reasons.
I set the simple task of finding column 52.
A minute or two later, the 2019 Beers (Wiltshire Division, so to speak) are facing a familiar surname. In case it’s not obvious I attempt to introduce the kids to their Great-Granddad only for my voice to falter. Now my chest is tight and my head is swirling with memories of Father and the imagination of a Grandfather. Tears come and a deeply welcome group hug follows.
I say a “familiar surname”, but it’s not exactly common, right? To get a glimpse of scale let me tell you that the (superb) Commonwealth War Graves Commission search engine reveals a dozen, twelve, casualties of war named Frederick Beer.
From our small island, so very many young men perished in foreign field.
Lest we forget.