The front two rows of seats in the Lecture Theatre at Worthing Library were given over to the Veterans. There they sat, proudly, some wearing medals on their chests, waiting for the proceedings to begin. Among them a few
who were not veterans themselves but were representing fathers or grandfathers who had sadly died before they saw their stories published.
Yes, today was the launch
of the Military Voices book and website and I was there as one of 45 volunteers who have been inspired and humbled by the experience of interviewing these Grand Old Men and Women.
It was my first job, with a fellow volunteer, to escort the veterans to their seats. One old gent took my offered arm with alacrity. It wasn't often these days, he said with a twinkle in his eye, that he had such an attractive young
woman on his arm. I told him he was a "silver tongued lizard" (one of Mr B's favourite sayings in such circumstances) which made him shake with laughter. So much so that I was afraid he might trip over his feet on the steps and pitch head-first into Row 3
or 4 where we volunteers had been allocated seats.
My second task for the day was to provide a "volunteer's perspective" for the assembled audience. What
a responsibility! I had to speak, not only for myself, but for all my fellow volunteers - moreover I also had to follow on from an incredibly moving presentation when we all listened in on just some the Military Voices (you can hear them for yourself
on the new website - go to www.westsussex.gov.uk and search on Military Voices.) Most of those in the audience were in tears. Yes, before I started to speak.
I didn't think twice when the call came through for volunteers to help with a brand new project recording Military Voices. I had been a volunteer on a similar project, the Great War project, and while researching and writing
up four different case studies, I had grown to feel quite close to the men concerned. Regular readers will remember me fondly relating the stories of Arthur the Hero, Ernest the Farm Boy, Albert the Gardener and Arthur the Artist. I had wished so often that
I could actually hear them tell their stories. On this new project I knew I would.
I decided to offer my services on two teams - the research team and the interviewing
team. After all, why join one team, when you could join two? For both teams, full training was provided and at the training for the interviewing team I was introduced to my partner, Peter. Together we would share the task of drawing up questions, setting up
video and sound equipment, carrying out interviews, taking photographs and writing up our findings. I was lucky because Peter and I made an excellent team. After particularly inspiring interviews we would drive home unable to think or talk about anything
else - on at least one occasion we were so busy sharing our thoughts that we missed a turning and got lost on the way back. No, I wasn't driving, Peter was. Oh ye of little faith!
Peter and I had talked beforehand about how we would handle it if our interviewee was hesitant or reluctant - but each and every one we interviewed seemed only too delighted to tell their stories. Their powers of recall were simply amazing. We were
concerned that setting up the equipment, testing out sound levels, explaining paperwork might seem intrusive - but we needn't have worried. By the time we had finished each interview and turned off the recorder, it felt like we were all old friends.
I am not a military historian though volunteering on the Military Voices project has definitely increased my knowledge of military campaigns. It has made me think a
lot about bravery, about the courage of setting off for a foreign land with no idea what might lie ahead. I can't imagine what it must have been like in the thick of fighting in France, in Burma, in India, at sea. I can't imagine the fear of never knowing
when you might be under attack. Thanks to the veterans who spoke to Peter and me, I have a better understanding of what they went through - and I am in even greater awe of them. Six of the veterans have died since they told their stories, including one of
the men we interviewed. It has brought home how very important it was to gather all these stories before it is too late.
At the end of the event I travelled home by bus, clutching my copy
of the massive tome in which all the Military Voices have been gathered. I was remembering standing on the dais, saying my piece and looking down at those heroes of many a conflict seated in those first two rows.
I know all the volunteers would agree that it was an honour and a privilege to record their Military Voices.
I hope we
did them proud.