As November approaches and the clocks have gone back; the nights are darker; the weather turns colder; a tiny red flower begins to appear on coats and handbags, cars and buildings bringing colour and emotion into our lives. A tiny red flower with a very special purpose. A tiny red flower to remember those who sacrificed their lives, fighting for their country in far off places and dying where they fell, all to keep their country,us, safe.
Not many families here will have remained completely untouched by the sadness and despair of war; maybe losing a loved one, maybe suffering themselves, losing their homes, losing their futures.
Each November that tiny red flower appears to remind us of the sacrifices others made in our name. The poppy has been used as a symbol of remembrance since 1921. Inspired by lieutenant colonel John McCrae’s, famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ written in 1915 which told of the red poppies growing over the graves of the fallen soldiers in Flanders. A symbol of resilience and hope in an otherwise bleak and desolate battlefield.
An American academic Moina Michael was inspired to campaign to have the poppy adopted as a symbol of remembrance across the United States. As a result, a French woman Anna Guerin arrived in the UK in 1921 to sell poppies in London. She met with Earl Haig, who founded the Royal British Legion, and he made the decision to adopt the poppy as their emblem. 9 million poppies were sold that first year and now over 45 million poppies are sold in the lead up to November 11th in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Poppy Scotland sell a further, slightly differently designed, 5 million across Scotland.
Services of Remembrance take place across the whole of the UK on the Sunday nearest to November 11th each year with local cenotaphs holding acts of remembrance involving the whole community from the royal family and veterans in London to local uniformed organisations and residents in towns and villages.
Across the country some memorials stand poignantly in beautiful surroundings which mask the events which took place around them.
Once such memorial sits in a stunning location just outside the village of Spean Bridge in the highlands of Scotland, overlooking Ben Nevis and the Mamore mountains. The Commando Monument, a category A listed bronze sculpture, has stood in this place since 1951 and commemorates the soldiers of the British Commando Forces. Opened by the Queen Mother in 1952 and standing 17 feet tall, three commandos in traditional dress have been immortalized in bronze forever; looking out towards Ben Nevis. A location chosen for a very specific reason.
The British Commandos were formed in 1940 at the behest of Winston Churchill, who wanted a special force to be able to carry out specific raids in occupied Europe. They were recruited from other sections of the British army and were seen as an elite force. Over 2000 serving army soldiers volunteered to be ‘commandos’ and undertake the training for the role.
In 1942 a training base was established at Achnacarry, 6 miles from the current monument, and potential commandos began to arrive. Their journey by train to Spean Bridge railway station often took over 14 hours and they arrived to find in front of them a 7 mile march at speed in full kit carrying their weapon. The march had to be completed in less than an hour or they were immediately returned to unit. Those that completed the initial selection test were then faced with weeks of intensive training in the surrounding countryside. Tactics, techniques, the latest weapons, unarmed combat and survival, physical fitness, orienteering, silent killing, signalling, enemy weapons and even demolition. Running up Ben Nevis, handling boats in the surrounding lochs, night time manoeuvres and cliff assault. A highly intensive training, which saw many soldiers returned to units, but rewarded those who completed it with a coveted green beret. More than 25,000 men passed through the training centre between 1942 and 1946 leading to the area gaining the nickname ‘commando country’.
The soldiers are long gone and the echoes they left behind somewhat forgotten but the striking memorial stands as a permanent reminder to the courage and sacrifice made by the commandos since 1942.
During the past years a Garden of Remembrance has been added to the site. Many a family have scattered the ashes of their loved ones around this area and there are poignant tributes to commandos who have died in more recent conflicts.
The Commando Memorial receives thousands of visitors every year; coach after coach pulling onto its ample car park, motorhomes spending the night, cyclists stopping off en route and tourists, tourists everywhere. A photographer’s dream in all seasons the sculpture stands out against the imposing backdrop of Ben Nevis and the Mamore mountains – everyone wants a selfie. Great views from all sides in all weathers and the perfect addition to many a sunset photo, but do these visitors have any understanding of what the sculpture represents?
How many take time to read the inscriptions? Are they here to remember fallen soldiers or just to admire the view and the great piece of art standing before them? Do they visit the newer memorial garden?
Remembrance Sunday each year sees the monument become a focal point for veterans and their families, locals and visitors as they stand together to remember the sacrifices made so many years ago and in the years since. Veterans march through nearby towns during Remembrance Sunday, culminating in a moving service held at the memorial late in the afternoon.
So, if you are very passing (it is just off the main A82) take time to stop and admire the striking memorial to fallen commandos and the magnificent scenery which surrounds it. 1700 commandos lost their lives in WW2, many more were seriously wounded and eight were awarded the Victoria Cross for ‘valour in the presence of the enemy’. The Garden of Remembrance reminds us that families still lose loved ones in conflicts across the world; fighting to protect their loved ones and their country.
Sit quietly on one of the benches, admire the views and remember the young men who gave their lives so many years ago.
“In memory of the officers and men of the commandos who died in the Second World War 1939-45. This country was their training ground.”
“Remembered with Love”
For more photos of this truly special place click here to visit our gallery.