On Sunday 7th November, the small historic town of Totnes in Devon stood still. Quietness floated down the steep Elizabethan high street, where the large crowd of locals stood. A trumpet softly played ‘The Last Post’, while a small flock of pigeons slapped their wings as they flew as one above us.
Remembrance Sunday is held on the closest Sunday to the 11th November; the date the First World War ended. It is a time to remember those who have given their lives for their country.
Often we are so busy we don’t actually get the time to stop and think. Everyday life is hectic: as hectic as we make it. This is what makes Remembrance Sunday special. For two minutes at 11am people stand in silence together and remember. The two minutes silence is held again on the 11th November. It allows people time to stop and think, and remember. Not only about those brave souls who fought in the First World War, but also the Second World War and all later conflicts.
I thought about all those millions of young soldiers who had given their lives; those wives who had lost a husband; those parents who lost a son; those children who lost a parent. I then thought about my grandparents. Both sets escaped the horrors of their home countries in Eastern Europe during the Second World War and travelled, on foot, to Britain. One set of my grandparents actually met each other while fleeing, and married in a beautiful little church in a small village in the Czech Republic. I thought about how I never asked them questions about their lives. I missed the only opportunity to share their memories and now they are lost forever. I then thought about an unknown soldier and a hand full of belemnites with a unique story.
Belemnites are not the most exciting looking fossils in museum displays: there isn’t really much sexing up you can do to them. The hard pointy fossils can be found in their hundreds in some places in England. And museums can have more than a few dozen specimens behind the scenes. These little grey-brown, shiny pointy things are generally all that remains of an extinct squid like creature and not much to write home about.
Why do museums bother? Why do museums need so many of these dull looking fossils in their collections? They all look the same; surely one is identical to another? What’s the point; they are utterly uninspiring little things?
Unfortunately, these are familiar questions the natural history curator may hear from those who do not understand the importance of natural history collections. And not just about belemnites, but about taxidermy, insects, rocks, skeletons, fossils, and all other specimens.
The wonderfully enthusiastic answer would explain that belemnites are incredibly cool extinct squid-like creatures. Most of the time the only fossil we see is the ‘guard’; the hardest part that sits towards the back of the animal and helped it float (which is what you can see in the photo above). There were an enormous amount of species that darted around in the oceans when the dinosaurs were stomping around on the land. We know there were so many species as we can see the different size, girth and even curvature of the fossils. Each individual specimen adds important information about the distribution of these animals and the history of life on Earth.
Belemnites belonged to the group that includes squid, cuttlefish and octopus (called Cephalopods). How can we say with certainty that they belonged to this group? Well, very rarely the soft parts of the full creature is preserved. These beautiful, delicate fossils show us the anatomy of the animal in amazing detail, down to the suckers on the tentacles.
They are pretty awesome fossils. From that one little smooth calcite fossil we know so much about them. What is even more fascinating, and sometimes forgotten, is the unknown person behind the specimens; the person who collected them, looked after them, and had their own story to tell.
A few years ago a hand full of small, smooth belemnites were donated to the museum. I had forgotten about them. Until I stopped to remember on that Sunday.
This small collection may add to our knowledge of the distribution of these creatures around the prehistoric world. There are even likely to be more than one species. But these fossils have a more recent history which adds a completely different dimension to these calcite rods. They were collected in 1944 where a young soldier, a Mr Shearman, was digging trenches in Saint-Lô, Northern France.
When I see these fossils, it immediately takes me back to a different world. Not one where these creatures were swimming through the warm water, escaping from the clutches of giant oceanic reptiles. A more recent, more terrifying world.
During the Second World War, the small town of Saint-Lô was occupied by Germans. The Allies mounted an invasion on a massive scale to take back German occupied Western Europe. Over 160,000 solders crossed the English Channel on the 6th June 1944. The Battle of Normandy had begun. Just over two months later, the Allies had over 3 million troops in France. To imagine such numbers is absolutely jaw-dropping. The immense scale, and unbelievable realism, in this real photo below is astounding.
This was an enormous operation. Soldiers from the UK, US and Canada along with Polish and French freedom-fighters spent over two months pushing the Germans south through France. Five days after Paris was liberated on 25th August 1944, the Germans retreated from France.
The Allies swept through cities and towns to free them from German occupancy. One of these towns, Saint-Lô, was severely bombed. The town was heavily occupied, so several air-strikes destroyed buildings and forced the Germans to leave.
Around the town after the bombing, the platoons of Allies set up defences around the town to ensure it was kept out of German hands. It was here where one soldier digging a trench paused and picked out of the soft wet mud these 10 fossils. What made Mr Shearman pick these out while he was digging? What did he feel as he looked at the fossils, the first eyes to look upon them for 200 million years? What were his thoughts as he looked at these hard, smooth pointy stones? Who was Mr Shearman?
I don’t know. Perhaps I never will. I do know that this one man stopped amidst the chaos and danger around him to pick up these fossils and put them in his pocket. These 10 little belemnites tell us of a time where young men and women saw unbelievable horrors while the world was in a terrifying state. The Battle of Normandy was one of many.
Memories, and history, are not passed down through genes. It is learnt and passed down by people. I regret not finding out more about my grandparents memories. They are now lost. My children will never know about their lives because I failed to ask them. Their children will never know. Ad infinitum. Ultimately they will be faded legends.
This soldier will not fade away. His 10 belemnites keep his story alive for others to remember the horrible events of the Second World War. He fought in the Battle of Normandy and survived. Something else survived with him, not just 10 fossils, but something that ensures his story is kept alive.
Every collection in a museum tells its own story about the individual collectors. And us museum curators make sure that these people, and their stories, are never forgotten.