Address given by Right Worshipful Grand Chaplain of England, Wor. Bro, J. R. G. Harvey at the 90th Anniversary of the Armistice Parade
“The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places”
2 Samuel Chapter 1 Verse 19
So, with that majestic opening sentence Brethren and Sisters, David commences his great lament for Saul and Jonathan and for the fallen of Israel and as we are gathered here to remember the 90th Anniversary of the Armistice we each do so I believe with some sense of the sorrow that David must have felt when he wrote those words. We too, all of us who are sons and daughters of Britannia, have a similar obligation to our dead to make sure that their sacrifice is remembered; to see to it that their names be not forgotten and in fact I want to remind you Brethren and Sisters that in doing so, we aren’t just discharging a solemn trust, we are fulfilling a divine mandate because we find that when David wrote this lament he commanded that it be written in the Book of Jasher. Now the Book of Jasher was that book which we read of in Deuteronomy where it is called the Book of the Wars of the Lord and David says further than not only is this lament to be recorded in that book but that the people of Israel are to be taught it and that it is to be sung in the Israel nation as an act of perpetual remembrance.
But you know, our imperative to remember is I suggest even more to us that; our motivation to remember our fallen of the Great War is something etched into the psyche of every man and woman of the British race because all of us here, unborn though we were at the time remain touched even now by that now long distant conflict.
Everyone here can look back and think of members of their family who fought and who never returned to this land they loved so much. My paternal grandfather didn’t fall in action but he died on active service; my maternal grandfather’s only brother was killed in action with the Royal Scots and all of you could tell a similar tale. Faded sepia photographs of smiling young Tommies on the walls of your homes, cherished medals in glass cabinets, faded and crumbling letters lovingly preserved.
We honour them all today. All those who laid down their lives. Men of every shire and city in the United Kingdom.
“The field of Gommecourt is heaped with the bodies of the Londoners” wrote John Masefield the poet “the London Scottish lie at the Sixteen Poplars; the Yorkshires are outside Serre, the Warwicks in Serre itself; all that great hill of the Hawthorn Ridge is littered with the Middlesex; the Irish are at Hamel, the Kents are on the Schwaben, and the Wilts and Dorsets on the Leipzig. Men of all the counties of England, Wales and Scotland lie scattered on the slopes from Ovillers to Maricourt. English dead pave the road to La Boissell; the Welsh and Scotch are in Mametz. In gullies and sheltered places where wounded could be brought during the fighting, there are little towns of the dead in all these places. Jolly young fusiliers, too good to die.”
Yes and more than that. Men of the Empire from five continents too and of all races and creeds. The men of India at Neuve Chapelle, the Canadians at Vimy Ridge, the Australians and New Zealanders at Gallipoli, the Newfoundland men all along that great slope from the Hawthorn Ridge looking down the Y Ravine, the British West Indies Regiment at Polygon Wood and the South African Infantry at Delville Wood.
Of those men of the Empire Masefield wrote this “Our men lie as was written for them but over the graves on these places it should be graven that these men came from many thousands of miles away to help their fellow men in trouble and that here they lie, in the mud, as they chose”
We can’t even begin to imagine the experiences that they went through. One South African veteran of the battle for Delville Wood, after visiting the Cenotaph and seeing the words “The Glorious Dead” wrote the following words, thinking of all the friends he’d lost.
the days long gone by
When the 1st S.A.I.
Took part in a battle arborious
‘Mid Delville Wood’s trees
With a vertical breeze
I don’t recollect feeling glorious.
When the battle was o’er
And we’d counted the score It didn’t feel very victorious
With most of our band
In a far better land
Not one of us said it was glorious.
When a pal fell down dead
With no top to his head
We may have used language censorious
But whatever we said
As we looked at our dead
I’m certain we never said glorious.”
And yet the Cenotaph does have it right, for they are eternally the Glorious Dead, not because the conflict they were engaged in was glorious but because of their conduct in that conflict; their courage, their heroism and their selflessness in making the ultimate sacrifice for this nation that they loved.
What were they like these men of Britain and the Empire? Well they were not perfect. Yes, some of them were virtuous but others of them were as flawed as it’s possible to be but David’s actions and exhortation to Israel remind us that their sacrifice makes them all deserving of our honour and our remembrance today. Today isn’t a time to ask questions about the characters of the fallen; it’s simply a time to thank God for all those who laid down their lives that we might live in freedom. Without their sacrifice we may not have been able to be here this afternoon, we might be living under an oppressive tyranny and bondage.
We shall never see their like again for men of the courage and selflessness of those men of the Great War are not made today but we today keep faith with them, proud of our descent from them, to be blood of their blood and bone of their bone and privileged to keep alive with love and honour our remembrance of them.
And we remember today their loved ones too. Wives and Sweethearts whose lives were changed forever because those optimistic young men of theirs never came back to the girls they left behind them. They lie forever in a foreign field and the women they loved who were or would have been their wives and the mothers of their children were left to live out their lives alone
When I was 23 there was a middle aged spinster lady where I worked and I was very young. I knew very little, I didn’t realise how little. I was without the discernment we attain as we get older and wiser and I said to her one day “Gladys, how come you never got married?” And she smiled and said “Well I was engaged once” And she reached down and opened her bag and pulled out a faded photo of a young man in a flying jacket. “This was my fiancé” she said “he went down with his plane and no one else could ever take his place for me.”
I saw her again many years later in the shopping centre in Crosspool in Sheffield. An old woman with two shopping bags, unnoticed by the crowd who milled around her for whose liberty and freedom she had lost that which she loved more than anything, her beloved fiancé whose place in her heart no one else could ever fill. She’d had dreams and hopes of marriage and children and they were all destroyed in an instant in the wreck of a burning plane, riddled with bullets and falling out of the sky.
I once heard Rabbi Lionel Blue tell a similar story on Thought for the Day, recalling how as a little boy, his mother who had been the supervisor of a large typing pool used to take him with her to work and all the single ladies there made a great fuss of him, and in the innocence of childhood he asked one “do you have any little boys?” and she smiled and said “No” and she opened her bag and pulled out an old but lovingly preserved photograph of a laughing young man in shirt sleeves. “This was my boyfriend” she said “he never came back from the Somme”
And so today we remember those two women and the 100s of 1000s like them who gave up their dreams and their darlings that we might live in peace and freedom.
I want to draw to a close but before I do I want to remember before God those who have died in all wars in defence of this nation in the 90 years since the signing of the Armistice. And I want to remember too all those who today serve in Iraq and Afghanistan and in every theatre where the British Flag flies and British soldiers lay their lives on the line to defend peace and democracy and this nation. You know whenever I see a soldier in uniform I go up to him and I shake his hand and thank him for what he’s doing for me and I tell him what a privilege it is for me to see him in his uniform. And I want to encourage you all to do that sort of thing because our soldiers need and deserve our thanks and encouragement and it’s a shame and disgrace upon our nation that in some places our boys and girls in the forces can’t go out in their uniforms without being abused by scum not fit to clean their boots. But you know sadly, to some extent it’s always been that way as Rudyard Kipling, reflected a hundred years ago.
“It’s Tommy this and Tommy that, chuck him out the brute!
But its’ “Saviour of ’is Country” when the guns begin to shoot”
Well as Orangemen and Orangewomen, we have more vision than that and so we declare today our respect and love for all those men and women who serve in our armed forces. We raise our prayers for them, we give our support to them and we thank God for them!
There hasn’t been much theology in this address today but then that isn’t the sort of service that this is. There wasn’t much theology in David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan either. It was simply the act of a grateful and sorrowing King remembering before God and the people those to whom they all owed a great debt and as a community of Christian people of this British nation we too simply remember before God those to whom we owe a great debt and we honour them and pray that we might be worthy of their sacrifice.