A Sermon from Sherborne

Moods of Remembrance

A sermon for the Service of Remembrance at Sherborne Abbey on 11 November 2018, given by Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Fry, KCB, CBE

 

Remembrance is about the dead of all wars and there are those of you here today who will have recent conflicts in mind, especially the Wars of 9/11. But on the centenary of the end of the Great War there can be only one theme today and I would like to offer some reflections on the moods of Remembrance over the last 100 years.

The mood here today is very clear: solemn and reverent, as befits both the occasion and the exquisite setting of Sherborne Abbey, but it wasn’t always like this, The Armistice Balls immediately after 1918 had a notorious reputation for drunkenness and bad behaviour. Large London venues were hired as venues – including the Albert Hall – and if you can imagine Remembrance being celebrated in the style of the Last Night of the Proms, you will have it about right. It was completely inappropriate and it couldn’t last, and, into the early 1920s, a quieter, more reflective mood began to emerge. It tried to square the eternal Great War circle: the cause was just, the war had to be fought and the nation acquitted itself well; but the cost was devastating and could it possibly have been worth it? The mood that emerged might best be described as redemption through sacrifice – it was worth it, but only because the war was just.

This mood probably reached its highest point in the early months of 1928 when the man who was certainly the most vilified, probably the most controversial and with at least a claim to be the most successful soldier this country has ever produced died. Field Marshall Douglas Haig died in late January and was buried in February near his ancestral home in Scotland. But, before the burial, his body proceeded in state through the streets of London. In an age before mass transportation, more people turned out to honour him than did so for either Sir Winston Churchill or Princess Diana.

But already the mood was changing again. The great German testament to the First World War – All Quiet on the Western Front – had already been completed the year before, and in 1929 the first of the significant books that would later represent the body of First World War literature was published. Some of the war literature makes as sublime a use of language as anything in the national literary canon and most was written from the highest motives. I’m not sure we can make either claim for Robert Graves and Goodbye to All That: it was a work of fiction masquerading as autobiography and he wrote it to avoid bankruptcy. Nonetheless, the literature that burgeoned in the early 1930s was one of the reasons why two quite separate communities of Remembrance emerged, each captured by a separate mood.

The first community was relatively small, metropolitan, articulate and literary and it increasingly turned to themes of the futility and waste of war. The second was much larger, with no geographical focus, and concentrated on the themes of comradeship and solidarity in adversity; it was also mute. Mute because as those with military experience in the congregation today will know, soldiers sometimes feel they can only communicate their experiences with others who have been through the same thing and they find it impossible to convey their feelings to a wider audience. And so the two communities – the strident and the silent – co-existed alongside each other.

And it was also in the early 30s that the politicians chipped in. Winston Churchill would say later and in a different context that history would be kind to him as he intended to write it. He did and it has been. His The World Crisis did not offer much direct criticism of the military conduct of the war but it set the scene for Lloyd George to launch a scathing attack in his War Memoirs, first published in 1933. By heaping blame upon Haig, he did, of course, conveniently absolve himself. So by 1938, just 10 years after Haig’s funeral, the mood had turned again to something much more ambivalent than redemption through sacrifice, a process compounded by economic depression and the approach of another war.

Our conduct of the Second World War was profoundly shaped by our experience of the first. Politicians, soldiers and the British people at large were unwilling to contemplate a war fought with the same mistakes we had made in the Great War. That’s why there was no invasion of Europe until 1944 and why the longest campaign conducted against continental Europe was fought by Bomber Command of the RAF rather than the field army, as we tried to fight the war with machines rather than the lives of men. World War II also gave us the concept of Remembrance. Up until 1939 we marked Armistice Day; after 1945 and with more than one armistice to commemorate, we turned to Remembrance Day.

After two world wars in 30 years the nation took a deep breath and looked for something that resembled a new normality, so it wasn’t until the early 1960s – and the 50th anniversary of the start of the Great War – that the next change in mood began to clarify and it was the arts that gave it expression. In literature, over 200 books on the war were published in the late 50s and early 60s and the collected works of Wilfred Owen went through eleven reprints. In music, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was written and first performed. But it was the theatre that probably had the greatest impact and in particular Joan Littlewood’s 1963 production of Oh What a Lovely War! The show was put on in Stratford in East London and designed as a sing along, counterposing well known songs of the Great War with a running commentary on its conduct; it became a theatrical sensation.

A few years later, in 1969, Richard Attenborough turned it into a film. What both Littlewood and Attenborough did – and Alan Clarke would do with The Donkeys, Alan Bleasdale would do with The Monocled Mutineer, and, a generation later but still writing in the same tradition, Ben Elton would do Blackadder Goes Forth – was ignore or distort history in order to make a larger point about the futility of the Great War and its incompetent military handling. You may take whatever view you like on this and mine is that I think it entirely legitimate to ignore the letter of history so long as its spirit is preserved and the risk that is being taken is clearly recognized. That risk is that the men who fought the Great War are simply characterized as passive victims. Now, whatever the soldiers who fought – and won – the titanic battles of the summer and autumn of 1918 were, they were not passive victims. That said, the mood of Remembrance darkened in the 1960s and 70s and left a bitterness that still remains.

But, as throughout this story, another mood was already taking shape and it was the result of those men who had been so famously mute in the 1920s and 30s finally finding a voice. By this stage, the remaining combatants of the Great War had clear intimations of their own mortality and wanted a say before it was too late. Some of them found it in the monumental BBC documentary production of The Great War, first broadcast in 1964. An entirely unforeseen consequence of the production was that the BBC was inundated with requests for film footage or still photographs because viewers believed they had glimpsed a fleeting image of a loved one who had fought during the war. A similar thing happened decades later when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission digitized its archive and made it available on a website; the site crashed on its first day, such was the public demand. This is also why some of you today are wearing the medals of a relative; it’s also why many of you will have visited the battlefields of France and Belgium – perhaps in search of a precious and elusive image of a single headstone. It is all part of the mood of Remembrance that emerged in the late decades of the 20th Century where we, the living, accepted custody of Remembrance from those we continue to remember.

Why did it take 100 years to settle on a mood of Remembrance? Why were there so many twists and turns on the way? Well, we can never overestimate the impact of the Great War. It was the only time in the modern historical era that we fought and defeated the main body of the main enemy in the main theatre of a major war. There was no precedent and we have studiously avoided doing the same thing since, so perhaps a century is not too long to find the appropriate emotional response. And, as I look at it today, that response is a mixture of horror at what our predecessors had to endure, awe and wonder that they were able to do so, gratitude for the legacy and no little pride. Add all that together and what emerges is something that looks remarkably like redemption through sacrifice as we seem to have come full circle over the course of a century.

Let me now move from the general to the particular. In fact, the very particular – a single day not quite 100 years ago but 98: the 11th of November 1920. A day when two things happened in and around Whitehall, in London that have defined the rituals and habits of Remembrance ever since. The first was the unveiling of The Cenotaph and the second was the interment of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey; taken together, they represent perhaps the most profound meeting of the sacred and the secular that this country has ever witnessed.

The story begins a few days earlier when a British officer – a Brigadier Wyatt – was led into a room in Northern France containing six coffins. The coffins contained remains that were identifiably British but not identifiable individually. They had been recovered from the major battlefields of France and Belgium. Accounts differ: some say that Wyatt was blindfolded, others that he simply closed his eyes; either way, he rested his hand on a single coffin that contained the remains of the man who would now become the Unknown Warrior. The coffin was immediately placed under the guard of the French 8th Infantry Regiment, a unit that had won the rare distinction of being awarded a collective Legion d’Honneur for its conduct in the war. The following morning the coffin was placed inside a larger casket of oak, made from trees grown at Hampton Court; a crusader sword from the royal collection and personally selected by King George V was fixed to the top. The casket was then escorted with full military honours to the quayside of Boulogne where Marshal Foch, commander of the combined allied armies in 1918, made a heartfelt speech on the theme of the indomitable spirit of the British soldier and the debt owed to him that France could never repay.

In a nod to French losses, HMS Verdun took the casket on board, and, escorted by a squadron of Royal Navy destroyers, made the crossing to Dover. The body was then placed on a train that arrived at Victoria Station at 8:32 PM on the 10th of November 1920, at platform 8. Last evening, as has become traditional, a service was held between platforms 8 & 9 of Victoria Station to mark the arrival of the Unknown Warrior. The casket was guarded overnight by shifts of general officers who had fought through the Great War, some of whom, inevitably, would have commanded him during the conflict.

The following morning – the 11th of November – the cortege set off to the accompaniment of a Field Marshal’s salute fired in Hyde Park, and joined the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace. The procession, on foot, then proceeded to Whitehall where the king unveiled The Cenotaph. The Cenotaph was an accident. A wood and plaster structure had been built in Whitehall to act as a focus for the ceremonies surrounding the interment but it was never intended to be permanent. It instantly caught the public imagination and Sir Edwin Lutyens was commissioned to design the lasting monument which remains at the centre of our rituals of Remembrance to this day. Lutyens designed the Cenotaph to have edges that were marginally indented inwards, so that lines drawn skywards from them would intersect at infinity, with all the spiritual significance that contains.

The procession moved on to Westminster Abbey where it was met by two extraordinary groups of people. The first, a guard of honour 100 strong, was made up entirely by recipients of the Victoria Cross. The second, about the same number, was made up of women who had lost not only their husbands during the war but also all of their sons.

The grave remained open into the following week and an estimated 1,250,000 people entered the Abbey to pay their respects in what remains probably the largest expression of public grief ever to have occurred in this country. Each of those who had lost a son, husband or brother on the Western Front and with no known grave were able to indulge the possibility that it was their loved one who had become the object of national mourning. Finally, the grave was filled with soil taken from the French and Belgian battlefields and capped with black Belgian marble. The inscription on the stone remains as appropriate, resonant and powerful now as it did then:

 

Beneath this stone rests the body

Of a British warrior

Unknown by name or rank

Brought from France to lie among

The most illustrious of the land

And buried here on Armistice Day 11 Nov: 1920….

 

They buried him among the kings because he

Had done good toward God and toward

His house

Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Fry, KCB, CBE 11/11/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne