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Outbreak of Great War commemorated

08 August 2014

Madeleine Davies attended the vigil in Westminster Abbey


Lights out: the Duchess of Cornwall puts out the remaining flame at the grave of the Unknown Warrior at the vigil at Westminster Abbey on Monday

Lights out: the Duchess of Cornwall puts out the remaining flame at the grave of the Unknown Warrior at the vigil at Westminster Abbey on Monday

"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 the Lord.

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 lifetime."

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 them.

"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 place."


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 parish.

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 Black Watch.'"

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 support.

"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 Abbey."

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 there today.

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 Western Front."



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