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‘The crowd lost all control’

08 May 2015

How Church Times correspondents witnessed the events of VE Day in 1945


Devout rejoicing for victory

VE DAY throughout England began very early in the morning, when the altars were crowded with worshippers.

In London, so vast were the crowds which visited Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's, from 10 a.m. onwards, that informal thanksgiving services were held in both churches at every hour throughout the day. No sooner had one congregation filed from the doors, when another surged in, filled the chairs and pews, and waited quietly till the next service should begin.

Unprecedented scenes took place at Westminster in the afternoon, when the House of Lords came to the Abbey and the House of Commons to St. Margaret's to return thanks for victory. The approaches to Parliament-square were choked before three o'clock, when the Prime Minister was to broadcast. Every inch of the square itself was jammed with people - even the statues were crowded out. One man perched for hours above the throng, clutching Disraeli's bronze hand. Abraham Lincoln's chair provided another resting-place.

The only way to reach either the Abbey or St. Margaret's was by cleaving a path through a solid mass of shouting humanity. Sometimes it was necessary to wait for a draft of policemen before a move of any kind could be made. The constables formed in single file, each clutching the elbows of the man in front. Would-be worshippers grasped the elbows of the last policeman and were dragged through the crowd like the tail of a comet.

The House of Lords

MEMBERS of the House of Lords arrived in the Abbey at about 3.30. In the front of the procession was Black Rod. Lord Woolton, acting leader of the House, followed, with Lord Addison representing the Labour peers and Lord Samuel the Liberals. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Wakefield came next, two hundred peers in ranks of three following. The Abbey was cool and dark after the sunlight. The Dean took the service, and among other thanksgivings and petitions read a prayer adapted from Lincoln's historic inauguration address in 1865.

The privileged few waiting in St. Margaret's for the arrival of Members of the House of Commons could hear the Prime Minister's speech at three o'clock, as it was relayed by loud-speakers outside. Almost every sentence was punctuated with a burst of cheers. But when the whole House of Commons came on foot along a gangway driven through the crowd by the police, the crowd lost all control. At the sight of the Prime Minister a roar was raised by thousands and thousands of throats, whistles were blown, gongs and bells rung in deafening applause.

The Commons at St Margaret's

THE Commons walked bareheaded in the sunlight. The Speaker entered St. Margaret's first, preceded by the Serjeant-at-Arms bearing the mace. Behind him came the Prime Minister and Mr. Arthur Greenwood, who took their seats in the front row. Following them were members of the Cabinet. The women Members came in a bunch in the middle of the men, many of whom were in Service uniforms.

The National Anthem was sung, and then the Speaker's chaplain, Dr Alan Don, called the Members to thanksgiving and dedication. The congregation sat during the singing of a metrical version of the "Old Hundred and Twenty-fourth," to its lovely melody with unusual harmonies:

E'en as a bird out of the fowler's snare
Escapes away, so is our soul set free:
Broke are their nets, and thus escaped we.

Then Dr Don read the names of the twenty-one Members of the Commons who have given their lives in the war, while the congregation knelt.

Finally, "O God, our help in ages past" was sung - a rare experience, never to be forgotten. The six hundred men who govern England lifted the tune to the roof. Their voices drowned every other sound - no echo of the choirboys' voices could be heard: their mouths appeared to be opening soundlessly, so great was the volume of men's voices. Then, after the blessing, the Speaker led the Members back through the crowd, the Prime Minister smiling and giving the V sign as he went. 

St Paul's Cathedral

ST. PAUL'S held its great service of thanksgiving earlier in the day. People surged up the steps and into the nave where many stood in the alleyways because there was no room anywhere else. There were men from the British fighting Forces, American soldiers, office workers, shopkeepers and labourers, women with babies, girls with tricolour paper hats, and children with flags and rosettes.

The Dean went at once into the pulpit, where he read thanksgivings and intercessions for those who were still fighting in the East. After the Te Deum and the blessing, the great congregation could scarcely find its way out of the Cathedral for the press of another great congregation attempting to enter for the next service.

Standing Room Only

IN CANTERBURY Cathedral the great service of the day was held at ten o'clock in the morning. All the chairs had been removed so that more people could be admitted; and there must have been five thousand worshippers standing shoulder to shoulder for the thanksgivings and prayers. In the absence of the Archbishop and the Dean, the Bishop of Dover gave the blessing.

In Southwark Cathedral eight services were held, and in the intervals individual worshippers entered the Cathedral for private prayer. In St. Albans Abbey, the place where freedom to worship in England was first won by martyrdom, the VE-Day service at seven p.m. had the character of a family assembly-so many parents with children filled the great nave for thanksgiving and dedication to service in the coming generation.

In Oxford, the Cathedral and parish churches were thronged with worshippers at a succession of services that continued throughout the day, and large numbers of men took part in the services in the college chapels. In the great cities of the north of England, the workshops had emptied their workers into the churches. . .

NEXT Sunday has been nationally set aside for national thanksgiving and national prayer. . . The designation of Sunday for national thanksgiving is natural, and corresponds to a spontaneous wish of the people that, whether they as individuals worship God or not, there should be no neglect of the Almighty in the apportionment of gratitude and praise for victory. And as every one had reason to expect, the King's speech on Tuesday was instinct with the fear of God, as have been his speeches at other and less happy times, such as September 1939. . .

The Catholic faith provides the only sane view of life, and its practice the only reasonable rule of conduct. No other theory of good and evil meets the case; no other nineteenth-century substitute - such as materialism, or the myth of eternal progress or of the practical adequacy of the applied sciences - can afford the same plan and purpose as the Catholic religion. Hence the Christian has a special duty of consolation at the present time. While the public is exalted by jubilation there are many lonely souls sitting at home, listening to the cheering, singing crowds outside, and listening in sorrow.

Outside their houses no flags or bunting welcome a homing warrior; for them remains the sadness and the mourning, unrelieved even by any certitude of conviction that the sacrifice of their dead has put an end to forcible oppression, or banished totalitarianism from the face of the earth. It is with us still. So to the mourners and the lonely, the Christian in his rejoicings has a duty to offer a sympathy far different from the feeble hope that the war was worth while. He offers the consolation of a faith that all life is worth while, because it is made by God, and the death of the fallen is a return to Him who created them for His service, and redeemed their souls with the precious Blood of His own Son. May they rest in peace.

Thanks be to God

THE streets were full in London on Tuesday, the Victory Day for the European war. But the churches were also thronged all day with enthusiastic worshippers, alike in the capital and in the provinces. At St. Paul's and the Abbey it was necessary to hold successive services at intervals of an hour throughout the afternoon. The cessation of hostilities in Europe, with all that it means of immediate relief from strain and suffering, did not find the British people unmindful of the true source of all their good. Thanks be to God for His immeasurable mercies.

There was satisfaction in the sight among the English crowds of many comrades from abroad - from the Dominions, the United States, and other Allied nations. It is to be regretted that circumstances had not brought a comparable contingent of Russians to these shores to share in the nation's joy. But we hope to see them often in the future, in the shaping of which they have so great a part to play, alongside the other forces of civilization.

One side of the world has now been freed. It remains to liberate the other, before peace can return to mankind. Meantime, for great sections of the human race the task of rebuilding from the ruins of the war a nobler, worthier and more righteous order of society can be begun. Let there be no mistake. The peace of man depends on following the righteousness of God. So after all the milling and the mafficking, off with the funny paper hats and on with the work of God.

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