During a recent Senior School Assembly, Major Graham Goodey shared his personal perspective on the meaning of remembrance with our students. My thanks to Graham for allowing me to share with you his thought provoking and inspiring words as we mark the centenary of the end of the First World War. Cliff Canning
On Sunday, as a nation, we will commemorate the end of the First World War, which to this day remains the most costly conflict that we have ever been involved in. At 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 the guns on the Western Front fell silent on what was thought to be the war to end all wars. Over 700,000 British servicemen and women had been killed and the desire to annually commemorate such a huge sacrifice was born.
I’m currently serving as an officer in the Army and I suppose, through the two years or so that I spent in Afghanistan in what one might think of as a war, I have some connection with those who fought in previous generations. I hasten to add, and I can’t underline this enough, what I did was completely different to those who fought in the world wars of the last century, and I certainly don’t hold myself worthy of speaking on their behalf.
You don’t have to look far to find quite differing opinions on what remembrance means, and I’m certainly not saying that mine is right and all the others wrong. However I thought it might be of some interest to share with you what I think about during the two minute silence.
Firstly, and this may seem like a strange confession, but even before I joined the Army I used to look forward to Remembrance Sunday. At school each year we had a service with the cadets on parade, and it wasn’t the marching or any sense of patriotic triumphalism that I looked forward to, but the perspective that comes from stopping to think about what others have been through and given for your benefit can be very powerful and refreshing. All of those everyday troubles and stresses that you think are so important suddenly seem just that bit less so. Sadly nowadays I think of friends of mine in the Army who didn’t come home, which I try to use to reinforce the appreciation I have for being here today.
Secondly I reflect on the sheer numbers. 723,000 servicemen and women from Britain and Ireland died during the First World War. On a single day, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, there were 60,000 British, Irish and Empire casualties. It remains the blackest day in the history of the British Army. One of the divisions, the 29th, was effectively regenerated seven times during the course of the war through casualties and replacements. As terrible and immense as these numbers are, it can be difficult to really connect with them because they’re so large and to some extent anonymous. But each person that makes up those numbers has a story.
For me I think about the number of families who knew that story and lost a loved one, and the lasting effect it must have had. I know that when I was away, I was far more concerned with how it would affect my family if I were killed than the effect on me. And that’s not because I’m particularly brave, which I’m not, but it is just how it was. If I died I’d be gone, whereas the grief for my family would have endured.
But it is not all quite so sombre. I also reflect on the many qualities that hardship and danger bring out. Duty, honour, courage, selflessness, cheerfulness in adversity. It is a remarkable thing to see how people react when their life is in danger, and it was a humbling sight for me to see how courageous some of my soldiers were.
I used to class physical courage in two ways. There was the adrenaline fuelled courage when you’re in the thick of the action. The examples I recall tend to be around occasions when soldiers did things of their own initiative that they hadn’t been ordered to do and didn’t necessarily have to do, or at least not in that way. Rescuing casualties from the open or moving forward at close range with the enemy were far from uncommon. And then there was the everyday courage of patrolling in areas that were heavily seeded with mines and explosive devices, knowing the danger that came with every step and the terrible injuries that could result.
What I always found quite incredible was how often soldiers volunteered to be the first one in the patrol – the one exposed to the most danger – so that their mates didn’t have to be. Even during the worst days when the young soldiers might be physically sick through nerves before going out on patrol, there were no complaints, no sense of self-pity, they just took a deep breath and got on with what needed to be done. And not once did I ever see an argument amongst the troops when we were away. That might seem hard to believe given the stress and pressure that they were under, as well as the fact that they were living on top of each other for months at a time, but it is true. Not once did I see an argument and that was far from unique to my experience. So often, in the darkest times, the human spirit shines through strongest.
And finally, notwithstanding all that I’ve just said, I think it is so important not to fall into the trap of focussing exclusively on the suffering and losses. Remembrance isn’t simply an act of national mourning. It is about sacrifice in a more holistic sense. They gave their lives for something. They put themselves forward to do the right thing for the collective good. For the sake of their children and grandchildren. For all of us. And therefore we have a duty to be worthy of the freedom we’ve been given, and if need be to defend it once more. So, ultimately, for me, Remembrance is inspiring. It inspires me to do the right thing for others, in our everyday lives, and sometimes even when you have to risk everything.
And you’d be hard pushed to summarise this sentiment as effectively, eloquently and poignantly as the words inscribed on the Kohima memorial in North East India, commemorating the actions of the combined British and Indian 14th Army in the Second World War, defending India from invasion by the Japanese, which are:
“When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.”
Major Graham Goodey MBE, The Royal Anglian Regiment