War, fashion fit for a princess, war, poppies, war – just war
Friday night’s Fashion for the Brave event was just fantastic! The opulence of London’s Dorchester Hotel provided a gorgeous backdrop for Hilary Alexander’s stream of models parading the catwalk with spring florals and shiny hair. The dinner was outstanding – as many of you witnessed with my Facebook photos of flaming brulé and flowing champagne – with pounding music raising the atmosphere to fever pitch.
The glamour and beauty of the fashion show and the presence of a princess couldn’t quite mask the horrors of war. I was privileged to share the table with two casualties of war who have returned to civilian life, minus limbs, to take on projects that inspire other wounded servicemen and women. These deservedly award winning men fight an on-going battle – as do their families – and the Soldiering On Through Life Trust works so hard to ensure they receive help and recognition for their efforts.
But the highlight for me was sitting next to retired Air Commodore Charles Clarke OBE – one of the bravest men on whom ‘The Great Escape’ was based. The Hollywood film was made before I was born and I’ve never seen it, although I’ve been told it’s Steve McQueen at his best – an adventure movie of handsome allied officers pulling off one of the most audacious wartime acts.
The reality of life behind the barbed wire for these captured servicemen is unimaginable. Charles Clarke’s joint plan for the prisoners to tunnel their way out of the camp was fixed for a moonless night in March 1944. Despite the ingeniously hand dug tunnel’s exit being on the path of a patrolling perimeter guard, 76 people managed to escape – with three making it home to the UK.
Charles was shot down in 1944, a year in which my dad was taking his first steps and my mum was just a twinkle in her father’s eye. Both my grandfathers served in that war; yet, other than a few faded photographs, I know nothing of what they experienced. However, my cousin Adrienne’s American father Harry documented his time, and the letters he wrote to his wife Dorothy have survived, including his account of liberating the Dachau concentration camp.
This year, Adrienne donated those letters to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, along with pictures, postmarked envelopes and an original ‘Annihilation of Metzrich’ pamphlet, telling of the annihilation of the town by the Nazis. These items, the Harry Oberyant Collection, are proudly displayed by my family as an enduring testament to the absolute tragedy of war. They’re also used in research and lectures to maintain the credibility of the Holocaust. My cousin says, “The hope is that no one ever forgets; but we know that can’t be – the generations will go and it will become harder, harder – we can only all hope to make some small – infinitesimal contribution to something.”
Of course I don’t remember cousin Harry as a soldier. I remember a smiling elderly gentleman who taught me to swim in Florida, took me to my first London show (Annie) and bought my first strawberry daiquiri. He was simply my cousin’s daddy.
I supported the Fashion for the Brave event in a dress covered in beaded red flowers, not exactly poppies, but pretty close. The emblem of Remembrance Day stems from John McCrae’s enduring poem In Flanders Fields, written when poppies bloomed across some of the worst battlefields of World War I, their brilliant crimson an appropriate symbol for the spilled blood.
So this week, no song lyrics, but a remembrance of all the people who have died or been injured throughout our history, and still, today. “Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow; loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.” Keep your poppies on for a few days longer. I will. @WeekendWitch. (If you respect the work of our armed forces, please share this blog.)