Late in his life at the nursing home, nobody ever called on Harold Jellico Percival. When you live to be 99 that is sometimes the case, especially since “Coe” lived a rather solitary life as it was. He had outlived his children and every other family member to anyone’s knowledge, yet when final rites were said for the World War II veteran in the small town of Lytham St Annes, in northwest England yesterday, hundreds ignored foul weather to pay their final respects.
Not a one had ever met him – mind you -- save for a handful of nursing home employees, but there was such a crowd that many stood outside the chapel in the cold November rain. As others around the world celebrated their veterans on what was once called Armistice Day, now Remembrace Day in England and Veterans Day in the United States, scores of people in and around Lytham St Annes paid homage to this totally unknown hero.
In a dazzling display of mankind’s heart, many wore military uniforms and carried red poppies after the Alistre Lodge Nursing Home posted a small “advert” in the local newspaper announcing Percival’s last rites. You see, in the small ad was a line, “A single man, Harold has no close family who can attend his funeral. He served in RAF Bomber Command as ground crew during the Second World War. Any service personnel who can attend his funeral service would be appreciated.”
That is all it took. A sharp-eyed newspaper reporter spied the announcement and a Page One story appeared. That triggered the social media – word spreading fast on the Internet and Facebook. Sgt. Rick Clement, a badly-wounded Afghanistan veteran, wrote to his Facebook friends, “If you’re in the area give him the send off he deserves. This guy needs and deserves your help” and within hours hundreds answered the call.
When Armistice Day was first held, it was to celebrate the armistice signed by England and Germany to end the fighting on the Western Front in World War I. The agreement was signed at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, so at 11 a.m. sharp on Monday – 95 years ago to the minute -- the casket bearing the remains of Percival, draped in the blue flag of the Royal Air Force, was hoisted onto stout shoulders and carried into the overflowing chapel of the Lytham Park Crematorium.
As the casket was brought forward, soft strains of the Dambuster’s March could be heard, since “Coe” had helped with the bombers involved in the daring attacks on dams in Germany back in 1943. Then the crowd, pressed in tightly, listened to parts of Laurence Binyon’s poem, “For the Fallen,” which has since been adopted in Britain as “The Ode of Remembrance:”
“They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
“They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.”
At the end of the reading a line is added by the leader, “Lest we forget” and – as is the custom – hundreds attending Percival’s funeral repeated the line together as if by oath, “Lest we forget.”
The Rev. Alan Clark, his hands holding a Bible, told the crowd, "You have come in numbers surpassing anything that was expected, not because you knew him, but because each of us has a common humanity." The crowd recited “The Lord’s Prayer,” sang the hymn “Jerusalem,” and then stood as the bugler sounded “The Last Post.”
"It was completely overwhelming, something we did not expect at all, this huge turnout," Lorraine Holt, matron of the nursing home, told reporters afterwards. "We have lots of veterans at the home and each and every one of them should be remembered like this."
Yes ma’am, they certainly should. We should honor all veterans the very way total strangers did “Coe” Percival in England yesterday. “Lest we forget.”