French veterans are moved by UK solidarity

After the Paris terror attacks, visiting ex-servicemen take comfort in the support shown to them during the remembrance march in Whitehall


Less than 48 hours after the Paris terror attacks, a French contingent of Jewish war veterans received a warm welcome in Whitehall as they joined the annual parade of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women.

Among the visiting group was Parisian Jacob Cohen, 89, who said he had been moved by the "huge amount of support" from marchers and those watching the parade.

"While we were stood in the square before the march, strangers were coming up to us to say 'my condolences', as if it were members of our family. They said: 'You know we share in this with you - we are sad too.'

"Around 30 people came up to us - young people, old women, everyone. We are very, very touched. The minute of silence too… the fact that England shares the pain with us in this way is touching."

Mr Cohen's home is in the 10th arrondissement, "not far from the attacks.The next day, Paris was a desert. There was nobody in the streets, no people, no cars. Places were shut out of solidarity. There were no young people laughing. It's sad."

Mr Cohen, who served during the Algerian War in the late 1950s, said he had become an Ajex parade regular "out of respect for those soldiers who died". He and his Parisian comrade, Gabriel Attelan, pointed out that it was part of a Franco-British exchange, as Ajex members attended the equivalent annual event organised by the French ex-servicemen's organisation at the Arc de Triomphe.

Solidarity with France was evident throughout the afternoon. As the solemn marchers made their way towards the Cenotaph, the Union Jack was flown at half-mast over the Ministry of Defence building out of respect for the Paris victims. Ajex chapters from around the country were represented, their location identified by a sign held aloft at the head of each group. As the French veterans approached the Cenotaph, the crowd broke into applause.

Jewish lieutenant colonel Simon Soskin of the Grenadier Guards commanded the parade, the first in re-cent history where a serving officer rather than a veteran has fulfilled the role. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis led the memorial service.

One of the UK's senior military men, Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, took the salute as reviewing officer. Addressing the 1,000-plus marchers and hundreds of spectators, he stressed "how marvellous it is to see the French here. They stand for a nation which is not going to surrender, is going to remain indomitable and will carry on regardless, irrespective of the atrocities which have happened. And I think you set an example to the rest of the world of how to react, and not to overreact, to these terrible things which have happened."

At the traditional post-parade tea at 8 Northumberland Avenue hotel, a minute's silence was observed for the Paris victims and everyone in the room joined in an emotional rendition of the French national anthem, the Marseillaise.

In his address, Chief Rabbi Mirvis said: "How poignant it is that we are here today to recognise the services of the military after the catastrophic events of Paris on Friday night, from which we recognise how important it is to prevent such atrocities from ever happening again."

Ajex vice-president Ron Shelley was heartened by the high turnout, having feared some people might decide not to attend on security grounds after the Paris attacks.

"It is most encouraging, the fact that now we are getting wide support from different sectors of the community. Part of our objective is to encourage organisations in the community to come and be with us because we want this to develop into a communal remembrance and a thanksgiving."

Tribute was paid to the Jewish Lads' and Girls' Brigade, which is both celebrating its 120th anniversary and commemorating a century since the organisation joined the war effort. JLGB alumni account for almost a third of the British Jews who died for their country in the First World War. There are 535 names on the JLGB roll of honour of WWI dead.

JLGB chief executive Neil Martin said: "I think young people get a hard time but if you look around today you will see not only 150 JLGB young people but also grandchildren marching with grandparents in the parade. The parade would not have run today without the contribution of the youngsters of JLGB.

"And each branch was swelled through the parents, children, and grandchildren who supported them. I think we could have more, absolutely. Every school, every youth movement should send a contingent." Pupils from JFS and Yavneh College also took part in the parade.

Air cadet Benjamin Rose, 17, had travelled from Bristol to march with his father, RAF chief technician Stuart Rose. "It's a time for us to remember what has been," Benjamin said. "I'm the only Jewish air cadet in my wing so to have a family here within Ajex is amazing."

Mr Rose, 45, said: "I'm very proud to have my son marching with me. I do the Ajex parade because I'm proud to be a Jewish serviceman, which is a rare thing these days. It's important people are aware that we are giving back to the community."

Sisters Elaine and Laura Simons have marched for the past nine years in memory of their father, who fought in the Royal Army Ordinance Corps during the Second World War. Elaine Simons, who came from Manchester to participate, said: "It's not only for his memory. We think it is important that the next generation and the generation after that maintain their support."

Her London-based sister, Laura, added: "I think it's about recognising the sacrifices people made. It's really important to continue to do that and to show what the Jewish servicemen did. I'm not worried about the future of the parade because numbers have increased over the past couple of years."

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