They are such famous words, and just before 11am I will read them out as we stand beside the war memorial.
They shall grow not 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.
The story behind those words is worth a brief telling. They were composed by Laurence Binyon, on a cliff in Cornwall, in September 1914. They were written in response to the battle of Mons and the seeming victory by the allies as the Germans retreated at the battle of the Marne. It was a strange moment in time when the horrors of the Great War- of mud, barbed wire and bomb craters- had not yet come about, and there was still a strong, and not fanciful, hope of peace by Christmas. That famous stanza popped into the poet’s head first and he built the rest of his poem ‘For the Fallen’ around those words which were its beating heart. Too often poems are filleted to extract the pithy quote. No such violence is done in this case.
Some of you, who will remember the old Funeral Service, or know your Bibles well, may be struck, as am I, by the echo in those words of a some verses from The Wisdom of Solomon.
The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.
In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die; their departure is accounted to be their hurt,
And their journeying way from us to be their ruin. But they are in peace.
An internet site will tell you that Binyon was the son of a clergyman- he wasn’t- he was the son of devout Quakers- his grandfather, rather topically was the railway engineer responsible for the London to Birmingham line- but he would probably have been familiar with the Old Testament.
Later Binyon did get involved actively in the war, but not as a combatant. He was too old anyway to fight, but his Quaker background too might have contributed to his decision to serve first as a hospital orderly, and later as a volunteer retrieving the wounded from the battlefield of Verdun. He wasn’t a young man either recalling life expectancies of that time- he was 45 when the war broke out.
He wrote a handful of poems describing his experience.
Read a few extracts, because it takes us into another experience of war. He is not now a distant spectator, but a wondering, troubled and compassionate participant searching the battlefield at night for wounded French soldiers.
Blurred stars; whispering gusts; the hum of wires.
And swerving leftwards upon noiseless tires
We glide over the grass that smells of dew.
A wave of wonder bathes my body through!
For there in the headlamps’ gloom–surrounded beam
Tall flowers spring before us, like a dream,
Each luminous little green leaf intimate
And motionless, distinct and delicate
With powdery white bloom fresh upon the stem,
As if that clear beam had created them
Out of the darkness…
Is the immense night–stillness, the expanse
Of faint stars over all the wounds of France.
Now stale odour of blood mingles with keen
Pure smell of grass and dew. Now lantern–sheen
Falls on brown faces opening patient eyes
And lips of gentle answers, where each lies
Supine upon his stretcher, black of beard
Or with young cheeks; on caps and tunics smeared
And stained, white bandages round foot or head
Or arm, discoloured here and there with red.
Now strange the sound comes round them in the night
Of English voices. By the wavering light
Quickly we have borne them, one by one, to the air,
And sweating in the dark lift up with care,
Tense–sinewed, each to his place. The cars at last
Complete their burden: slowly, and then fast
We glide away.
When we remember war and its pity we need powerful words, and I don’t think it is accidental that it is poets and Scripture that give us some of the most powerful ones to draw on.
That includes the ones we heard earlier, from Micah about beating swords into ploughshares, or from Jesus himself, when he declares the sorrowful, the peace makers and the strivers for justice blessed.