O Valiant Hearts
Veterans' Day, November 11th, is getting some extra respect this year. Not much mystery about why; and there is the coincidence of that now-ominous number 11 to drive home the significance of this day. (How odd, and what a gift to newspaper cartoonists and the makers of memorabilia, is the resemblance of that number to the outline of the Twin Towers!)
For me, Veterans' Day in the U.S. has always had something anticlimactic about it. In this country, most of the sentiments associated with remembrance of wars are concentrated on Memorial Day, so that Veterans' Day is a secondary event. In England we have no Memorial Day, so November 11th, which we call "Remembrance Day," is the whole deal. Another difference is that for English people, Remembrance Day is indeliby connected with the appalling slaughters of WW1, which people of my grandparents' generation still referred to as "the Great War." America came late to that war, so while your losses were heavy, they were over a shorter period, and made less impression.
I think every country reserves a special place in the collective memory for her bloodiest war. For the U.S., that was the Civil War, which killed more Americans — from a smaller population — than all other wars since, combined. For us English, the Great War was WW1, and to this day we wear poppies in our lapels on Remembrance Day. The Flanders poppy was a symbol of all those who died on the western front in 1914-18, immortalized in the poem by John McCrae (who was actually a Canadian):
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place …
I think there was no family in England that was left unscarred by that first war. Certainly there was no place so small it did not take losses. My father, who was large and fearless, was a repo man for a furniture store in the small English country town where we lived, and one of his secondary responsibilities was the checking of references. People who wanted to buy furniture on the instalment plan had to give references, usually of local tradespeople near their homes. Dad used to drive round the little country villages of our district, checking these references. Sometimes he would take me with him, and I got to know all those villages — tiny places, most of them, registered in the Domesday Book of nine hundred years before, with unfathomable Saxon or Norman-French names: Nobottle, Shutlanger, Bugbrooke, Yardley Gobion, Stony Stratford, Easton Maudit, Hanging Houghton, Grafton Regis, Castle Ashby. Every one of them, even the tiniest and most inconsequential, had its own little war memorial on the village green, with a list of names under the heading "1914-18," and sometimes, tacked on as an afterthought, one or two more names under "1939-45."*
The secondary school I went to — that is, under the English system, from age 11 to 18 — had a cadet force with all three major services represented. On Remembrance Day we held a full-dress ceremony in front of the school's own honor roll, with us cadets all in uniform and the entire school — about a thousand boys and fifty masters, many of them veterans — standing at attention in the main hall. The bugler played "Last Post" (which you call "Taps"), and we all sang John Stanhope Arkwright's hymn "O Valiant Hearts." I can't resist giving the full words of that hymn here. Even just read off the page, it is exceptionally beautiful, though to get the full force of the thing, you need to hear it sung as we sang it, to the tune by Gustav Holst. (If your computer can pick up a MIDI file, you can play a tinny version of Holst's tune direct from the Web.)
O valiant hearts who to your glory came
through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
your memory hallowed in the land you loved.
Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
as who had heard God's message from afar;
all you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
to save mankind — yourselves you scorned to save.
Splendid you passed, the great surrender made;
into the light that nevermore shall fade;
deep your contentment in that blest abode,
who wait the last clear trumpet-call of God.
Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still,
rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
while in the frailty of our human clay,
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self-same way.
Still stands his Cross from that dread hour to this,
like some bright star above the dark abyss;
still, through the veil, the Victor's pitying eyes
look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.
These were his servants, in his steps they trod,
following through death the martyred Son of God:
Victor, he rose; victorious too shall rise
they who have drunk his cup of sacrifice.
O risen Lord, O Shepherd of our dead,
whose cross has bought them and whose staff has led,
in glorious hope their proud and sorrowing land
commits her children to thy gracious hand.
Now we are at war again. We lost 5,000 people on the first day of this war. As grisly as WW1 was, it was a bad day on the western front when 5,000 died in a single morning. (At Antietam, the worst one-day battle of the American Civil War, the "butcher's bill" was 3,650, though of course many more later died of wounds received.) The husbands, wives, children, parents, friends, colleagues and lovers of our 5,000 are now enduring their own Calvaries. Undoubtedly, more of us will be visited by death, or grief, before this war is over; and it is in the nature of modern war, and of the bestial amoral ruthlessness of our enemies in this particular war, that anybody — you, me, the richest or poorest of us, the oldest or youngest, the grandest or least of us — might be numbered among the victims. I was talking last week to a journalist colleague, a man who knows far more than you or I do about these things, on the topic of nuclear terrorism. Quite matter-of-factly, he said: "We're probably going to lose a couple of cities before it's finished." God help us all.
Which, of course, He will. It is the oldest of atheist clichés that in a war, all participants believe they have God on their side. Our current enemy certainly believes that, with a fervor few of us can match. For myself, I take the old-fashioned and no doubt absurdly naïve point of view that since God went to the trouble of creating the human race, and equipping us with the power to improve ourselves in a way no lesser creature can, He wants us to use that power. Parable of the talents: If we slam the door on the modern world and revert to the habits of thought, law codes, and political arrangements of the seventh century, as the Moslem fanatics want us to, we stand in defiance of His will. I believe humanity was made to struggle onward and upward, not to vegetate content in the security of familiar ways and of "truth" fixed once and for all by infallible sages. I also believe the things John Stanhope Arkwright plainly believed: that the process of improving ourselves — either individually or as a species — is not designed to be easy, that from time to time it will get very gruelling indeed, that to keep the banner of progress and civilization aloft will need sacrifice, sometimes terrible, heart-breaking sacrifice, and that an especially pure, especially inspiring example of sacrifice was provided for us all twenty centuries ago in Palestine, "as earth lay dark and still."
That, of course, is a Christian point of view, and I don't expect every reader to share it. I think that some such argument can be "mapped" (as mathematicians say) into any serious religion, though. If you are not an utter atheist — and if you are, I probably lost you several paragraphs ago — you know that there are higher purposes to life than mere feeding and breeding, and you surely feel that those purposes are not likely to be fulfilled by a human race that has shut down its critical faculties and imprisoned its spirit in a jail of ignorance and despotism. Every war is a call to sacrifice; but every war is about something, and the sacrifices are not in vain. I think we all know what this war is about. This week of Veterans' Day — Remembrance Day — let's brace ourselves for whatever sacrifice any one of us might be called on to make in the months and years ahead, in the remembrance of, and in the spirit of, those who went before us "into the light that nevermore shall fade" — those who, to save mankind, scorned to save themselves.
* Yes, yes, I know: WW1 did not officially end until the peace treaty of 1919. This is reflected on the medals of that war. There is one in my possession, the Victory Medal issued to No. 35103 Pte. J.R. Derbyshire of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, inscribed The Great War for Civilisation 1914-1919. Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, though, those village war memorials all dated the war to 1918. Ordinary people did the same in speech, sometimes calling it "the 14-18 war."