Why this soldier? (November 2022)

We come together tonight as a school community: students, leaders, parents, friends, but mostly students – young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. Later we stand together to remember and remember and commit ourselves to a better future. A wreath of poppies will be laid on the grave of a soldier killed in World War One and we will pause. But why poppies, why world war one, so long ago, why that, nameless, grave?

I’d like to start to answer that with one of the treasures of the internet – it’s a video of Kenneth Branagh performing a speech originally given by Tim Collins. If you’ve seen it then it bears rewatching, if you haven’t then you should look it up. Tim Collins was the Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Irish Regiment on the eve of the Iraq war and there is no video or sound recording of him giving the speech – it was taken down in shorthand by a journalist and then dramatized by Branagh. It’s spine-tingling in the way it conveys the reality of war. He says “If you are ferocious in battle, remember to be magnanimous in victory”, and “It is a big step to take another human life. It is not to be done lightly”. For me, this is one of the greatest of the horrors of war – that it takes our humanity and makes us killers, risks making us monsters who kill lightly or vindictively – that responsibility that an ordinary soldier has for who lives and who dies is almost too much to be borne.

I use the phrase “ordinary soldier” carefully – I spoke to the school about four such in our assembly on Wednesday, and we are here tonight, in part, to honour that one – the unknown warrior who lies beneath the black slab of Belgian marble that you walked past as you came in. He was an ordinary soldier, chosen at random from those unidentifiable casualties of the Flanders battlefields and brought by horsedrawn wagon to Boulogne where his coffin was put on the destroyer HMS Verdun (whose bell is kept in the Abbey, just to the south of his grave). Then it was brought by railway, in the same carriage as had carried the remains of Edith Cavell and Charles Fryatt – the only other two victims of the first world war to be given a state funeral. The train went to Victoria station, where you can find a plaque commemorating its arrival at platform 8. Finally, on a horsedrawn carriage again, through immense and silent crowds it was brought via Hyde Park Corner, The Mall and Whitehall to Westminster Abbey.

Most of the dead of the Western Front, of course, lie buried close to where they fell, in great war cemeteries in Belgium – you may have been to see them, row upon row of white markers stretching out to eternity and reminding us of the terrible waste of life. Tim Collins’ speech contains these lines on death: “if there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly and mark their graves. It is my foremost intention to bring every single one of you out alive. But there may be people among us who will not see the end of this campaign. We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them home. And there will be no time for sorrow.”

197 coffins wrapped in Union Jacks did get flown back from that campaign in Iraq, many of them passing through the small town of Wooton Basset where locals turned out to show their respect. The bodies were returned to their families and were buried and there was time for sorrow. And this, I think, bridges the gap in our understanding between the ordinary soldier and the state funeral – war is a terrible thing: it takes humanity and turns people into monsters; it takes lives and turns people into corpses; and then, in some cases, it takes identity and turns people into nothing, unidentified bodies who, even if they get a proper burial, can only be marked as “Known to God.” Amongst the white stones engraved with name, rank, number and religious affiliation in those cemeteries in Belgium are hundreds, thousands, without identification; the battlefields of all the world’s wars before or since are littered with the bones of those who weren’t buried properly, whose graves weren’t even marked. They weren’t put in their sleeping bags and sent home; they weren’t returned to their families and there never was the time for sorrow, never was a focus for grief – they were simply … extinguished.

In our reading earlier, we heard the lines “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the fire shall not consume you.” I have never been to war, and I have never sent a loved one to war, and so I am guessing, but I think maybe that this is what I would hope for, that the rivers would not overwhelm me, them. And I think that one of the fears I’d have is of being lost, without love, without even a name.  Shakespeare tells us it is the poet’s job to give to airy nothings a local habitation and a name – and there are some amazing poems written about the first world war; but it is the unknown warrior’s role to give a local habitation and a name to those victims of all wars whose graves are unmarked and to the griefs their families feel; and this is why, I think, we keep coming back here; why every year we think about a war that almost nobody alive remembers, that was closer to the Battle of Waterloo than to us, here tonight.

War takes humanity, it takes lives, it takes identity – and by remembering we give it back – as far as we can. When they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. They went with songs to the battle, they were young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted, they fell with their faces to the foe. They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.