This month, the people of Britain wore poppies to mark the sacrifice of the millions of men and women who gave their lives in the Great War.
It was the 80th Armistice Day since the end of hostilities; the eightieth time people had gathered on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to remember the dead.
Seventy years ago, the service at the Cenotaph was being mirrored by services all over Britain – memories of the war were still fresh, and the silence was strictly observed.
Traffic and trade would come to a halt as people stood in silence in the streets. As the two-minutes ended cars and lorries would roar back into life and people would go on their way.
For Limehouse costermonger Arthur Lovell, it was a miracle he found himself observing the silence at all.
Arthur was one of the Old Contemptibles – he had volunteered to fight and gone out with the first battalions in 1914. Amazingly, among the carnage of the trenches, he had survived to finish the war at Mons on Armistice Day. Wounded twice, both times he returned to his company to fight.
On the morning of 11 November 1928, Arthur was observing the ‘Great Silence’ at his costermongers barrow in Burgess Street, Limehouse – in those days, the service was held on the actual anniversary rather than the nearest Sunday.
As the silence came to an end, the horrified veteran saw a four-year-old girl, Rosie Wales, run into the busy road – right into the path of a steam lorry that was trundling back on its way.
Rosie faced certain death, and Arthur ran into the road, pushing the child to safety. But the brave ex-soldier, who had cheated bombs and snipers’ bullets for four years, slipped and was killed by the truck.
It was an act of heroism which caught the imagination of the nation.
A week later Arthur was given a full military funeral – and the crowds which jammed the streets of the East End dwarfed even those who had turned out for Armistice Day a week before.
And the story didn’t end there. At the funeral, the Bishop of Stepney recounted a strange tale from the days after Arthur’s death.
‘Last night there came to his house’, said the bishop, ‘a man who had been attracted by the name and asked if he could see the body. He said quietly: “I thought so. This man saved my life out in France during the war. I have not seen him since then until tonight.”’
The service was organised by the Rev CH Lancaster, chaplain of the 17th London Regiment, and he went on to tell the tale.
Arthur had saved the man’s life during a gas attack by lending him his gas mask, risking his own life for a comrade.
Arthur was buried with full military honours and thousands lined the route, bringing the traffic to a halt once again. At the scene of his death, the gun carriage, bearing his coffin, came to a halt, and a wreath was brought forward.
Then the carriage went on, followed by a costermonger’s cart organised by Arthur’s mates and piled high with chrysanthemums, orchids and, most poignantly, poppies.
East End costermongers joined with Countess Haig to honour their hero and the
service ended as little Rosie
Wales presented a bouquet
to the countess at Bromley Public Hall.
Among the mourners were Arthur’s wife and seven kids. Their dad had been a hero in peace as well as wartime.
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