"IT IS near - a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and
thick darkness!" The first reading at Westminster Abbey's
commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War was taken from
the book of Joel. Delivered at the Great Lectern by the Defence
Secretary, Michael Fallon, it foretold a powerful army, devouring
fire, and a desolate wilderness - all avoidable through a return to
This was an occasion, the Dean explained, not for remembrance,
but for repentance, "as we reflect on the failure of the human
spirit that led to an inexorable slide into war".
That slide was illustrated during the next hour as the candles
held by each person present were gradually extinguished, a
reference to the remark attributed to the then Foreign Secretary,
Sir Edward Grey, on the eve of the Great War: "The lamps are going
out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our
Readings from the Bible, prayers, and singing from the choir
were punctuated by contributions from Poets' Corner, where the
memorial to T. S. Eliot bears the epitaph: "The communication of
the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living": a
warning, perhaps, of both the power of writings from the era, and
our inability truly to comprehend the experiences that inspired
"No child or future generation will ever know what this was
like. They will never understand," Stephen Wraysford, the fictional
soldier in Birdsong, says. The novel's author, Sebastian
Faulks, read from it from the Great Pulpit.
Perhaps the most moving reading was by the actor and
screenwriter Mark Gatiss, who recited the poem "The Messages", by
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, the words of a soldier who returns, "more
dead than alive", and "cannot quite remember" the dying words of
his five friends.
Other readings were delivered by serving members of the armed
forces. Captain Edward Harris, a 28-year-old officer in the
Coldstream Guards, who has just returned from Afghanistan, read
from "A Letter to Joy", written by Captain Alfred Dougan Chater, of
the Gordon Highlanders, to his wife in October 1914.
The enthusiasm expressed - "We are all fairly shouting with joy
at going" - was a reminder of an earlier admonition by Sir Hew
Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War at the
University of Oxford, that: "We must avoid the condescension that
comes from hindsight, that says that we would have acted
differently. Our role is less to judge than to understand."
Most memorable was a performance of Vaughan Williams's The
Lark Ascending, by Jennifer Pike on violin and Daniel Cook on
the organ, which pierced the silence as four guardsmen stood sentry
at the four corners of the grave of the Unknown Warrior, heads
bowed to the stone floor, like statues.
After a reading from St John's Gospel, the choir gave the first
performance of a new composition by David Matthews, a pupil of
Britten. To What God Shall We Chant Our Songs of
Battle?takes its title from a poem written in 1914 by Harold
Monro, chosen by the Abbey. It was delivered by young men whose
voices blasted the stone walls of the Abbey like a rebuke.
With the nave now dimly lit, the Duchess of Cornwall snuffed out
the last remaining flame, at the Grave. The actor Rachael Stirling
read from Little Gidding, by T. S. Eliot: "What we call
the beginning is often the end And to make an end is to make a
beginning. The end is where we start from."
Darkness did not have the last word. "The light shines in the
darkness," Canon Andrew Tremlett read, as the service closed with
the Prologue of St John's Gospel. "And the darkness did not
overcome it." As the congregation made their way out, they looked
up to see a shaft of blue light, in which silver stars danced,
slicing the night sky - an installation by the Japanese artist
Ryoji Ikeda. In Dean's Yard, a boy in his school blazer told his
mother: "It's like it's coming from heaven!"
Lights out: The descent
into darkness at Westminster Abbey was accompanied by vigils around
the country. The Lights Out campaign, organised by the Royal
British Legion, encouraged everyone in the UK to turn off their
lights between 10 and 11 p.m. on Monday, bar a single light.
Lights-out ceremonies were also held at cathedrals and churches
across the country.
Peace vigils also took place. In London, representatives
of the First World War Peace Forum gathered on the steps of St
Martin-in-the-Fields for a two-hour silent vigil. The White Feather
Diaries website, a Quaker project that will serialise the diaries
of five young people who opposed the War, went live.
The Archbishop of Canterbury joined the Duke and Duchess
of Cambridge, Prince Henry of Wales, the Prime Minister, the King
and Queen of the Belgians, and the President of Germany, Joachim
Gauck, in Belgium, at a service in St Symphorien Military Cemetery,
Mons. Both British and German soldiers are buried there - a
condition laid down by the Belgian who donated the land, Jean
Houzeau de Lehaie.
In an article for the Sunday Express,published
the previous day, the Archbishop concluded that "Remembering
matters. Forget what it all meant, how it happened, how surprising
it was, what destruction and terror it wrought for so many
generations, and we may well find ourselves in the same
Originator of tomb celebrated
by Jennifer Ross
WITH the help of a local historian, Robin Colyer, members of the
congregation of St John the Baptist, Margate, have been preparing
for the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War by
highlighting the significant impact of a former vicar of the
In 1916, a young army chaplain, the Revd David Railton,
returning to his billet at Erkingham, in France, discovered a small
garden at the back. He recounted the incident years later in his
writings: "Only about six paces from the house, there was a grave.
At the head of the grave stood a white cross of wood on which was
written in deep black pencilled letters: 'An Unknown Soldier of The
It was after his experience in that garden that he first
considered the concept of the Unknown Warrior.
Today, the grave of the Unknown Warrior, which lies at the west
end of the nave of Westminster Abbey, is a national symbol of
commemoration and remembrance. As Mr Colyer explains, however, it
took years of persistence by Railton before the idea gained
"He first wrote a letter to Field Marshal Douglas Haig during
the war, to express the idea that a representative of the war dead
should be returned to England. . . Then, in August 1920, he wrote
another letter, this time to Dean Ryle of Westminster Abbey, with
the suggestion that an unknown soldier should be buried in the
Dean Ryle was impressed with the idea, and, with many in the
Church at the time who were disappointed that the Cenotaph was not
a Christian memorial to the war dead, it gained momentum.
The Unknown Warrior was accorded a hero's burial in the abbey on
11 November 1920, and the grave was filled with French soil, and
later sealed with a slab of Belgian marble. The Union flag that was
hung above the grave was one provided by Railton himself; it had
been used by him for the burial of soldiers. This flag still hangs
Mr Colyer considers that, without Railton's tenacity, the
Unknown Warrior would not be in Westminster Abbey. "The inspiration
came from an ordinary parish priest and his experiences on the