This poem by Joe Earl reflects a continuing controversy between the Royal British Legion and the Bristol Merchant Navy Association. Ever since any of us can remember an officer of the Merchant Navy has presented a wreath on Remembrance Day alongside, and at the same time, as representatives of the three armed services. This was considered natural given Bristol’s status as a Merchant City that incurred many losses in both wars. The crests of all four services are carved on the face of the Cenotaph indicating where each service wreath has been placed over the years since 1919. In recent years, however, a misunderstanding has arisen and this tradition has been overruled with reference to the order of precedence at the Westminster Cenotaph, leaving the Merchant Navy lining up with civilian services such as the Fire, Police and Ambulance. This has caused, and continues to cause, resentment among retired Bristol Merchant seamen familiar with the local tradition of treating the Merchant Navy as, pace King George V, ‘the Fourth Service’.
The Cenotaph calls and England expects,
Our people and public to pay our respects,
Agents of Forces are first in the queue,
To place on the step where garlands are due.
The Army the Navy and Royal Air Force,
A trio together the Legion endorse,
Upright and firm on Remembrance Day,
Two minutes silence the regular way.
The Fourth service too must share in first laying,
Clear is the reason that shouldn’t need saying,
Then four in a line step back and salute,
When resting the wreaths in solemn tribute.
Our Merchant Navy should simply be there,
For giving a life at sea anywhere,
All who served we need to remember,
Equal as heroes this day in November.
Joe Earl Nov. 2013