Look left, look right, the hills are bright,
The dales are light between,
Because 'tis fifty years to-night
That God has saved the Queen.
Now, when the flame they watch not towers
About the soil they trod,
Lads, we'll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.
To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night:
Themselves they could not save. – A. E. Housman (1)
On November 11th, 1918 the Allied commander-in-chief and the German secretary of state signed the Armistice which brought the fighting in the first World War to an official end in a railway car in Compiègne Forest in Picardie, France. The following year, His Majesty King George V issued the following proclamation:
To all my people:
Tuesday next, November 11th, is the first anniversary of the armistice which stayed the world-wide carnage of the four preceding years, and marked the victory of right and freedom. I believe that my people in every part of the Empire fervently wish to perpetuate the memory of that great deliverance and of those who laid down their lives to achieve it.
To afford an opportunity for the universal expression of this feeling it is my desire and hope that at the hour when the armistice came into force, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities. During that time, except in the rare cases where this might be impractical, all work, all sound and all locomotion should cease, so that in perfect stillness the thoughts of every one may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.
Thus November 11th came to be Armistice Day. After the hostilities, which were renewed in 1939, were brought a more decisive close in 1945 the day was renamed Remembrance Day in countries loyal to the British Crown. This change reflected the desire for a more general memorial of those who made the ultimate sacrifice at the call of king and country.
Although Remembrance Day is only 91 years old it embodies concepts which are much older, concepts which have been part of human society since time immemorial. One such concept is the concept of duty. It was out of duty that the men we honour on Remembrance Day gave their lives. It is out of duty that we who live keep their memory alive.
What is duty?
Duty is the sense that one owes a particular service to others. Society would fall apart without duty. Parents have duties to their children, children have duties to their parents. Spouses have duties to each other. Our highest duty is to God. Our second highest duty is to our country.
We, as members of a particular society and country, are part of a whole that is larger than ourselves, a whole that embraces not just those living today, but generations past and generations yet to come as well. Our leaders, owe a duty to our country, to see to it that our country is not endangered and the lives of its young people spent fighting wars for frivolous reasons.
When, however, our country finds itself at war, duty calls upon our young men to go out and fight and if need be die for our country. This is a duty that cannot be fulfilled apart from a willingness to sacrifice all one is, has, and hopes to be and gain. Unflinching bravery to the point of death is not something which can be bought. There is no quid pro quo that society can offer in return.
We honour them for their sacrifice, for honour and glory have always been the reward of valour. Some would prefer that we did not do this. They argue that to honour courage in battle is to glorify war, and hence to encourage and perpetuate it. Therefore, they say, in the interests of ending war and bloodshed, we should not glorify it. Such people are tragically and foolishly mistaken.
Men have always recognized that war is a horrible thing, the cause of bloodshed, death, destruction and sorrow. That has not prevented men from fighting wars. War is a product of human nature. St. James, in the first verses of the fourth chapter of his general epistle, identified lust or desire, as the root from which fighting and war springs. Desire is located in the human heart and cannot be eliminated by schemes to make war a thing of the past.
We cannot eliminate human nature without eliminating human beings entirely, a rather high price to pay for world peace. We should not go about provoking and instigating war, but we must be ready to defend our country in war if the need arises. For this reason, we must continue to honour those who have laid down their lives for our country in the past.
We too, you see, owe a duty to our country and a duty to the soldiers whose memory we collectively honour on Remembrance Day. We owe it to them to preserve the country they died for, a patrimony for their descendants and ours. We owe it to them to raise up future generations with the character and sense of duty they themselves displayed, so that should the call of duty come again, there will be those to answer it.
We pledge in peace by farm and town
The Queen they served in war,
And fire the beacons up and down
The land they perished for.
"God save the Queen" we living sing,
From height to height 'tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third.
Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you've been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.
(1) The lines in the epigraph are the second, third, and fourth stanzas of A. E. Housman’s poem 1887, also known as “From Clee to heaven the beacon burns” (the first line of the poem). It is the first poem in Housman's A Shropshire Lad, originally published in 1896. The lines quoted at the end of this essay, are the sixth through eighth stanzas of the same poem. The celebrations referred to throughout the poem are, as the title indicates, of the 50th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s coronation.
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