2014 – A Special Year for Remembering


This year’s Remembrance events have been special in so many ways. Most obviously, of course, it is 100 years since the outbreak of World War One. In June it was also the 70th anniversary of D-Day in World War Two. This is also the year in which British combat troops leave Afghanistan; a conflict that has claimed the lives of 453 UK service personnel in the past thirteen years.

In amongst the dates and statistics are intensely personal memories. The most raw will no doubt be the most recent losses of friends and relatives. Today I remember my friend and Labour comrade, Del Singh who died in a gun and bomb attack on a restaurant in Kabul in January. Del was not a soldier but a development worker, trying to build the peace that people in Afghanistan deserve no less than people anywhere else. Del was a civilian. War claims lives just as cruelly whether or not those who die wear a uniform.

My personal thoughts also turn to my family.

For my parents’ generation, World War Two was not something from the history books. When I was born it was a memory more recent than the start of the Iraq war is for people today. For my grandparents, the horrors of the First World War was something they had personally lived through. My parents and grandparents had all survived but so many of the people they had known in their youth had not. And they remembered them. They were real. They had faces, names, families too. It was the brutal lottery of war that meant that my parents and grandparents lived but they did not. And it is that same lottery that means I can be here writing this today.

My dad’s father, Harry Burden, was a career sailor who fought at the battle of Jutland in World War One. He retired from the Navy between the wars but he was recalled in 1939 to look after security and maintenance at Derby House, Liverpool. Derby House was the operational centre for guarding the Atlantic convoys which kept Britain going in the war years.  It was at Derby House that Harry met Royal Navy Wren called Paula Ronnan. Like Harry, Paula’s parents, Dick and Het, had also lived through World War One. Dick had been a non-commissioned officer in the Territorial Army but an injury in which he lost an eye (I believe in training) meant he was never sent to France on active service.

Paula’s “day job” was to provide admin back-up at Derby House. She was also a dancer and, with Harry, she was a key figure in Liverpool’s Naval “Concert Party”. Harry’s wife, Doris, provided the piano accompaniment. It was through Harry and Doris that Paula met their son, Rod Burden, when he was home on leave. Rod too was in the Royal Navy. He was a weapons engineer and he served on a range of different warships around the world. One of his last Naval postings was to HMS Superb, a sister ship to HMS Belfast, now a floating museum moored next to London’s Tower Bridge.

Rod and Paula married in 1944. Three and ten years later, my sister Ann and I were two of the results of Harry and Doris originally introducing Paula to Rodney.

It could so easily all have been different. Dick, Het and Paula’s house on Merseyside was bombed in an air raid. The roof was blown off but they were not there when it happened. At another time during the war, Paula was received a posting to India. However, her mum, Het, became ill and, at the last minute, Paula was excused from the posting. The troop ship on which she was due to travel was attacked and, from what I remember my parents telling me, it was sunk with many lives lost.

It was not only the Ronnans who were lucky. Apparently in 1941, Rod Burden was in line to be aboard the battlecruiser HMS Hood just before she sailed to engage the German battlecruiser, Bismarck. For reasons I guess I will never know, Rod did not join the ship. What did happen was that in the ensuing battle with Bismarck, HMS Hood was sunk. 1,415 of those aboard Hood died. Only three survived.

Change any of that and the likelihood is that neither I nor my sister would be here today. It really was a lottery.

Harry, Doris, Dick, Het, Paula and Rod are no longer with us. This year though, there have been so many occasions here in my Northfield constituency when my thoughts have turned to them, as well as to Del and to those who we remember but who I will never know. One of those occasions was in June when I attended the D-Day commemoration organised by the residents of Saffron and Campion House in Kings Norton.  The same month D-Day was also a theme when the Hollymoor Centre in Longbridge commemorated its historic role as a hospital treating some of the psychological casualties of war.  In July, Colmers School put on an unforgettable assembly to mark the centenary of the start of World War One.

For me, the memories were there too when I met up with the regional representative of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to find out more about the war graves at Lodge Hill, Selly Oak. And last Friday there were two special chances to remember during visits I made to Kings Norton Primary, and to St Laurence Junior and Infants schools in Northfield to talk about Remembrance Day and to see the poppies wreaths and ceramic poppies the children had made. Kings Norton Primary’s wreaths are now on war graves from both World Wars in St Nicolas Churchyard. St Laurence Infants’ wreath is now in St Laurence church, next to the plaque containing the names of Northfield’s own war dead.

And on Sunday, I was privileged to again lay a wreath at the British Legion’s annual Remembrance Day event in Quarry Lane, Northfield.

Lest we forget …

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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You can reach me by email at richard@richardburden.com or use the form on the Contact page to send me a message.