“A THOUSAND shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand: but it shall not come nigh thee.”
The promise of immunity in Psalm 91 was sung by the choir of Westminster Abbey on Thursday night last week, on the eve of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. By the end of 1 July 1916, nearly 20,000 Allied soldiers had been killed. It remains the bloodiest day in British military history.
The service was an opportunity to “remember the courage and sacrifice of those preparing to face their enemy”, the Dean, the Very Revd Dr John Hall, said. It was also a time to pray “that we may continue to learn the lessons of history to build a world at peace”.
Throughout the evening, the voices of those who served in the military were listened to by a congregation comprising many serving members of the armed forces. Many of these were heavily decorated. Accompanying the Queen was the Duke of Edinburgh, his left breast-pocket adorned with a row of medals: 17 in total, including the Greek War Cross earned during the Second World War.
The Prime Minister was among those reading the prayers. The actor Luke Thompson read an account by Second Lieutenant Jocelyn Buxton, who died, aged 20, on the first day of the battle. Lt Buxton described the contrast between the “wilful crashing and panting of guns” and the beauty of the surrounding hills with their “message of smiling peace”. In the week before the advance, the Allied forces fired more than one-and-a-half million shells. The noise could be heard on the south coast of England.
The first reading, from Romans 8 — “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” — was read by Brigadier Timothy Hodgetts, medical director of Defence Medical Services. He has served three tours of duty in Afghanistan; four in Kuwait and Iraq.
The passage “For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter” held echoes of Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (“What passing-bells for those who die like cattle?”) and his “Parable for the Young Man and the Old”, with its meditation on the sacrifice of youth.
Later in the service, the choir performed a new anthem by Judith Bingham, “Watch with me”, commissioned by the Dean and Chapter, combining Matthew’s account of Gethsemane with Owen’s “Exposure”.
Delivering his address from the high pulpit, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Dr Richard Chartres, provided a sober account of events, taking in both the sweep and the detail (“Hard, dry, chalky soil had enabled the Germans to construct a labyrinth of deep trenches.”)
After paying tribute to the “courage and sacrifice of those who went over the top”, Dr Chartres quoted Tom Kettle, a Dublin poet who died on the Somme: “Used with the wisdom that is sown in tears and blood, this tragedy of Europe may be, and must be, the prologue to the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland, and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain.”
Our prayer today, the Bishop said, must be that we act as “agents of the reconciliation which is God’s will, reconciliation wherever we live or from wherever we come, rejecting those who would stir up hatred and division and, instead, working for the reconciliation that will ensure that our children will never have to endure what the men of the Somme so bravely endured.”
As the congregation sang John Henry Newman’s “Lead, kindly light”, the Queen took her place before the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, the last burial permitted at the Abbey. It is unknown where the deceased soldier was originally buried, but the Somme is one of the places from which bodies were exhumed, out of which one was chosen at random to rest in the Abbey.
After the placing of her wreath, the congregation remained standing in silence, while Lance Sergeant Stuart Laing of the Welsh Guards sounded the Last Post from the Lantern Tower, on a bugle issued to his battalion in 1915 and used at the Battle of the Somme.
The Queen left to cheers from tourists gathered outside the Abbey. Left behind were servicemen and women beginning an overnight vigil at the grave. Behind them, votive candles flickered.
Their watch concluded at 7.30 on Friday morningof last week, when whistles were blown, echoing those, 100 years ago, which were blown to signal the moment of advance.
The 1916 offensive was halted on 18 November, after 141 days. More than one million had been wounded, captured, or killed. No more than six miles of German-held territory were regained.
Commemorations were held around the country. Cathedral bells were tolled and in Durham, ten Royal British Legion Riders embarked on a 24-hour, 750-mile motorbike tour of the North, stopping at war memorials in more than ten counties. An exhibition in Exeter saw 19,240 hand-stitched calico shrouded figures laid out in the Northernhay Gardens: one for every man who died on the first day of the battle.