When I was growing up, I spent all my holidays in Deal, south-east Kent, the Royal Marine School of Music still had its headquarters here. Every night, I went to sleep to the sound of the Last Post, played on a single bugle, and woke to the rousing call of Reveille. On Sundays, the band of the Marines would march through the town in full kit – white pith helmets, jingling medals, gold epaulettes, white sashes across navy-blue uniforms, highly-decorated drums criss-crossed with white cord – while we lined the streets and our hearts swelled with pride and patriotism. Yes, back then, patriotism was not a dirty word, and the town was justly proud of its musicians.
In the summer, there were free concerts on the parade ground which spread in front of the barracks at Walmer – I particularly remember the performances of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with fireworks and cannon shots. (Never mind that the description of the piece as “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit, obviously written without warmth or love,” was written by Tchaikovsky himself, who was said to particularly hate the braggadocio of this compositiom.)
Twenty-five years ago today, on September 22nd 1989, at 08:27, a 15 lb bomb exploded . in a changing room at the Royal Marines School of Music. The blast destroyed the recreational centre, lifting the roof off the three-story building before it collapsed into a heap of rubble, trapping people underneath, and causing extensive damage to the rest of the base and nearby civilian homes. Eleven bandsmen were killed; twenty-one were injured, some seriously. One body was found on the roof of a nearby building.
Many of the Marines who used the building as a barracks were practising marching on the parade ground when the blast occurred. These marines witnessed the collapse of the buildings, knowing that those of their friends and colleagues who were still inside could not have survived the blast. Many of them suffered from shock and disorientation for days afterwards. The blast was heard several kilometres away. Windows in the centre of Deal were shaken by the force of the blast and a black pall of smoke hung over the town all day. It was cowardly and shocking incident – as all bombings of this nature were and are – and particularly heart-rending in its utter pointlessness. This was a ‘soft target’ – these were musicians, part of a ceremonial military band, not fighting troops, whose only military training was geared towards saving lives as stretcher-beares and first-aid personnel in times of war. Most of the victims were still in their teens.
One week after the bombing, the staff and students of the School of Music marched through the town of Deal, watched and applauded by thousands of spectators, many of them in tears. Gaps in the ranks of the band were maintained to mark the positions of those unable to march because of death or serious injury.
To mark the tragic occasion, a Memorial Bandstand was later built on Walmer Green, to the memory of those who “only ever wanted to play music”. The names of the victims are inscribed on plaques. Every year, a Royal Marine band from the school of music, now located in Collingwood, Portsmouth, comes to march through the town and then give a concert as a tribute to the memory of the dead.
A memorial placed in the chapel of the Walmer Barracks was destroyed when the building burnt down in 2003, but the site is now a memorial garden. The surviving barracks at Walmer were converted into flats when the base was decommissioned in 1996, and the School of Music is once again based in Portsmouth.
Today, we stood under hesitant sunshine and listened to the band playing, martial music, popular songs, English airs, the programme unchanged since I first listened as a child. Further along the Green, I could see the house where my four brothers and I grew up. It was impossible not to feel a lump in the throat, a tear in the eye, for the innocent dead. Many of them were new recruits, barely started on their lives. Had those lives not been so pointlessly snatched away, they would barely be in their forties today.