A Sermon from Sherborne
For Remembrance Sunday 2017
A sermon preached at the Service of Remembrance at Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 12 November 2017 by Major General Robert Corbett, KCVO, CB
I was a soldier — I went to the Guards Depot at Caterham as an 18 year old Recruit for the Irish Guards straight from school, wet behind ears and the lowest of low! This was a rude introduction to the reality of life but that’s another story! I worked for a decade in the world of charity as the Director of a grant making foundation after leaving the Service but the Army was my life and one way or another I wore Her Majesty’s uniform for the best part of 50 years. So I know you will understand what a great honour I count it to be asked to speak here in this wonderful place on Remembrance Sunday. Thank you for that.
I dare say you would expect me to say so, but this day — of all the days of year — is very special to me — to all of us, I am sure — because: first of all it is a reminder — very necessary, I am afraid — of what can too easily happen if we forget the horror and waste of war and secondly, it gives us pause to think of all those men and women — many perhaps known to us personally and many also maybe, close to home and connected to us through family – who have paid with their lives or their health for our freedom. And they have done this so that we can live here in peace in our land and do all the things that we can often take for granted.
So, to remember and to honour the fallen – this straightforward determination never to forget — is surely the defining feature of our Remembrance Sunday – and of countless other Services taking place all across our country right now.
What comes first to mind in remembering like this? Well, we will all have own thoughts, of course we will – but I am sure that many will think back to the Great War of 1914-18 and the terrible attrition of the trenches. As those fortunate enough to be present for General Sir Robert Fry’s masterly talk in the Abbey yesterday, will have heard, we are 100 years away now from the appalling battle of Passchendaele in 1917.
So, thinking of this, I have been reading — or re-reading to put it better — a wonderful little book by a man I knew in his old age — a retired President of The Law Society – and a person who I greatly admired. He was called Henry Lawson — Sir Henry Lawson. For 60 years he neither wrote nor spoke about the First World War but he always regarded his survival – and he incidentally, was the only survivor in the whole of his class at school — his survival through 20 months of front line soldiering — where the life expectancy of a Young Officer was 6 weeks — from March 1917 to the Armistice – as a gift of life. So he did eventually record a number of his memories. Here are some of his words… (He was a Lieutenant — ie commander of a 30-40 strong Rifle Platoon of the 10th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment) “A boy of 19 years of age, I entered the Ypres Salient for the first time on the 8th October 1917 to take part in a great attack on the Passchendaele Ridge, moving out from the battered town of Ypres through the Menin Gate. Before me in blinding rain lay, for 30 or more square miles, a quagmire, an endless chain of shell-holes, filled with slimy water. It was a scene of unbelievable desolation, outrunning sight in every direction, and relieved only by a few smashed tanks and odd stumps of trees, the remains of blasted and flooded spinneys. Shells had ploughed every yard of earth. There was a pervading stench of decay over a field of battle already more long-lasting and more terrible in its dreadful and complete destruction than any perhaps in previous military history”. He goes on:
“Those long and exhausting hours of approach was a time of gnawing anxiety and uncertainty. I had heard of the battleground of the Ypres Salient and of the savagery of the contest there but Passchendaele was then only a name, not yet a byword” … and so battle was joined. Here he says “In my Company we had lost half our men without being able to make any useful progress. I myself was hit some half a dozen times by spent pieces of shell, luckily without a wound such as you would notice. My Company Commander had been wounded and had left me in charge. We dug in under incessant bombardment from the German guns. The conditions were unutterably appalling — rain, soaked through and with dead bodies all around. I walked around the Company as often as I could. Whenever men were hit they invariably sent for me before they either died or went wounded to the dressing station. As you tried to bring comfort or to ease pain, you could be almost certain whether the good-bye was final or not. I remember especially a splendid Corporal of mine. We had built up a special rapport in the course of long months spent working together. He was in a shell hole, propped up by his fellows. The instant I was summoned, I feared the worst. When I joined him, I knew that my assumption was correct. He could not speak but he took both my hands in his and, while awaiting the arrival of stretcher bearers, he talked to me with his eyes. He was still clinging to me when he was carried away.” They were a tough breed to be sure — it makes you think what they had to endure – and what they did endure.
And so on to the Second World War. Here I would like to read to you a letter we found by chance in the family archive recently. It concerns the last VC awarded in the European theatre of war in the closing days of the fighting in North West Germany to Guardsman Edward Charlton of the 2nd (Armoured) Battalion IG — the letter is dated 6th May 1946. It reads like this: “Dear Mr Charlton, At last I feel I can write to you again. I did not like to write to you before and tell you definitely that I had recommended your Son for the Victoria Cross, in case you should be disappointed. It took a long time to get all the evidence from the men who had seen your Son’s action, and I was afraid the delay might cause it to be refused. However, now that this great honour has been conferred upon him, I should like just to congratulate you on having been the father of such a gallant soldier. There is no need for me to say more about his bravery — the whole world knows about it now. I went back to Wistedt yesterday. The village still bears the scars of the terrific battle that we fought there, but it was hard to visualize that struggle, in the peace that reigns there now. If only your Son could have been there to share it with me. I know how proud you and Mrs Charlton must be to have had such a son, and I am sure you will realize how I feel, to have had him in my Squadron [and these are the really important words of this letter] “May the peace for which he laid down his life, be a lasting one. Yours sincerely, Michael O’Cock.” Mick O’Cock, the writer of that letter and a very gallant soldier of the Second World War, was my late father-in-law, my wife, Susie’s, father. There is a moving postscript to that — each year, at this time, there is a newspaper entry under the heading ‘In Memoriam’ which reads “Charlton. In loving memory of Guardsman Edward Charlton, VC, Irish Guards, killed in action on 21st April 1945. Still missed by Alwyn” – his brother. Please let us never forget nor neglect the bereaved. Remembering also that there are 15 thousand War Widows in this country of ours. I find that very moving and, of course, it is close to home.
Home. Which leads me on to the memory of a magnificent World War 2 veteran of the Royal Air Force who lived, until his recent death, in our village of Oborne. Ron Chandler was his name. Let me read you “Early in December 1945 a 20 year old RAF Sergeant with one leg missing was escorted into the Investiture Room at Buckingham Palace where King George VIth pinned the Distinguished Flying Medal onto his best tunic. The King thanked the young man for all he had done to help secure victory against the Germans and – as Kings do! — he asked him about the action in which he had distinguished himself. Here is Ron speaking: “1 didn’t know what to say then and I don’t know today but as I told the King, I was stuck in my Lancaster’s rear turret and all I could do was to keep firing my Brownings until my ammo was gone so, that is what I did”. What I suspect he did not tell the King was that the Luftwaffe night fighter that had attacked his aircraft had smashed his turret and, in the process, as he describes it, “shot his right leg to hell”. Unwisely that German fighter came back and Ron shot it down. His life was saved by a New Zealand member of his crew who crawled through to the back of the Lancaster and put a tourniquet on him. Ron said, “My leg had to go but I still had my life. They gave me the DFM but I didn’t deserve it any more than the thousands of others who never made it back” (It is very sobering to remember that, of 125 thousand aircrew serving in RAF Bomber Command, a total of 55,500 were lost in action). The Distinguished Flying Medal is inscribed with the words “For Courage”. How true. Ron’s Widow, June, told me he always said, although it was a hard business, ‘those were the best years of my life”. I suspect that comradeship had a lot to do with it – which reminds me of something that happened to me, a long ago now, when I was a young Parachute Company commander. One evening I had the good fortune to find myself sitting with General Johnny Frost — Commanding Officer of the Second Parachute Battalion on the bridge at Arnhem. I asked him. “Sir, what was it that led your Battalion to hang on to that bridge against all the odds for so long in the way they did?” “Well,” he answered me. “It was quite simple really. You see, we had been together since the early days of the War. We had trained together. We had fought together. We were friends and we were not about to let each other down.” I have never forgotten that and out of it, for me, stands that word FRIENDS, which takes me back to those wonderful words of Saint John, read to us in the Second Lesson by the Mayor. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’…
We must not, nor will we, forget what these people did for us — nor the deeds of those who came after them in so many conflicts since 1945: the Korean War, Malaya (Harry Chandler of Oborne was a National Service machine gunner of the 1st Battalion of the Dorset Regiment in this hard campaign and his daughter, Nikki, has written to me movingly about how much his meetings and re-unions with his remaining comrades-in-arms mean to him. She says, “when they are together you can see the unique, unspoken bond they have”. I know exactly what she means). And so the Malayan and Aden Emergencies, Kenya (Mau Mau), Borneo, Oman, Cyprus (Eoka), the Falklands War – and here, just as in their exploits in both World Wars – none of us, surely, could ever forget the sacrifice, supreme courage and skill of the Royal Navy — then the long Northern Ireland campaign (38yrs with 763 service men killed), the Kosovo War (in which our youngest son played his part in the Irish Guards Battlegroup), the first and second Gulf Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan — and, only in one year since 1945 has no British soldier been killed in action – and it goes on still.
So today is our opportunity to remember and to give grateful thanks to all those who have given – and those who continue to give — their service to us — to those men and women who are still faithfully standing their watch for us now, just as their forebears have done.
May I close now with two sets of words from the Great War of 1914-18. The first, I saw recently on a small memorial tablet to two soldiers (brothers perhaps?) on the wall of a country church in our next-door county. This what it said: “Went the day well? We died and we never knew but, well or ill — England, we died for you”. I find that very moving. And then, secondly, words from the end of Henry Lawson’s Great War book: “Those were happy days of fellowship and camaraderie despite the tragedies. We had no stimulus other than the object of our calling’ God Bless Sir Henry for that – and all who have held faithfully and courageously to “the object of their calling” — for this is the calling — the calling of service – that has ultimately allowed us to live as the free people we so blessedly are. We should never forget that — nor do I think we ever will. Amen to it and thank you.