THE Queen on Saturday led tributes to the “forgotten army” of veterans from the Second World War in Asia in one of a series of events held in Westminster and across the UK.
Bright sunlight shone through the Houshiary Window at St Martin in the Field, bathing the church’s white and gold walls with light as the Queen and Prince Philip led a procession through the church’s main aisle. As the royal party took their seats in the south transept, the Standards of the Burma Star Association and the Far East Prisoners of War Fellowship Remembrance Association were draped across the altar.
Representatives of the Royal British Legion followed, carrying their association flags down the centre aisle before turning left and right, to flank the north and south aisles throughout the service.
“The struggles, the suffering, and the sacrifice of the war in the Far East are a defining experience in our nation’s history,” the Vicar of St Martin the Fields, the Revd Dr Sam Wells, said in his opening remarks. “We stand in awe of those who were tried in ways beyond what most of us ever have to go through – and greater than anything most of us can even imagine – people who lost life, limb, and liberty so that we might know peace.”
The event had a more intimate feel than it would have, had the service been held in Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s. St Martin’s was chosen because it houses a memorial to Far East Prisoners of War (FEPOW), which includes an original section of the notorious Burma-Siam Railway.
Lieutenant Colonel Tony Slater, secretary of the Royal Anglian Regiment Association, laid a wreath at the memorial while a lone piper from the 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles played The Flowers of the Forest. Earlier, two great-grandchildren of FEPOW veterans, Charlotte Pash and Jack Blatt, lit candles for peace and remembrance on either side of the altar.
A number of veterans spoke during the service, including Maurice Naylor. As a member of the Royal Artillery, he was en route with other members of the 18th Division to the Middle East to join up with a Russian attack on Germany from the east. They were in the Indian Ocean off Madagascar when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and other territories in the Pacific.
“We were diverted to South East Asia to deal with them,” he said. “I remember our battery commander telling us how easy this would be. At that time we didn’t know much about the Japanese.
“How ignorant and complacent we were! We didn’t deal with them. We were defeated by the Japanese, and in February 1942 we were forced to surrender in Singapore and we became prisoners of war.
He said that more than a quarter of those taken prisoner “died during more than three-and-a-half years of captivity from overwork, starvation, neglect, and brutality suffered at the hands of the Japanese.”
In his sermon, the Bishop to the Forces, the Rt Revd Nigel Stock, explained the necessity of remembrance. “We remember because we need to be reminded of what the human spirit can achieve. . .
“We should remember because we need to say that it is straightforwardly wrong and evil to treat human beings in the way so many captives were treated. . . We should remember because of the terrible destructive power that lies in human hands. We remember because the Christian gospel calls us to a better vision as we follow Jesus Christ.”
After the service, wreaths were laid at the rear of Downing Street at the statue of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the Supreme Allied Commander in South East Asia during the war. And there was a fly-past of historic and modern aircraft, including a Dakota and Hurricane from the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and an RAF Typhoon.
Other memorial services were held throughout the weekend, including a drum-head service at Horse Guards Parade, and services at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, and at the nearby Lichfield Cathedral. There was also a service in Llandaff Cathedral, attended by the First Minister of Wales and the Honorary Consul for Japan.
In a service at Canterbury Cathedral, Archbishop Justin Welby said that the war had “left the world with deep wounds and fractured relationships”, and that the process of healing was “long and painful.”
“The peace for which we give thanks today remains an ongoing project of reconciliation,” he said. “Walking together as friends requires talking together in truth. Wherever we see relationships starting to break down, we must reach out. To offer the hand of friendship is to offer the hope of peace.”