A Solemn Commemoration on the Centenary of the Outbreak of the First World War

By Judith Lappin, Honorary Secretary- Machine Gun Corps Old Comrades’ Association

Westminster Abbey, London. 10pm Monday, 4th August, 2014

For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Ecclesiastes 3: 1, 4, 8

An intensely hot summer night marked the Centenary of the outbreak of World War One. War was declared in Britain and Ireland (Southern Ireland was then part of the United Kingdom) at 10pm.

Just over 100 years ago, an Archduke, unknown to most of the world’s population, was assassinated in Sarajevo (Serbia at the time), which started a series of events that lead to the hell of the trenches in France and Flanders for all concerned. The death of this one man and the blind ambition and vainglorious actions of another in Germany, caused the death of millions.

The flowers of a generation of mostly young men were wiped out in just four years, which led to most of a generation being minus a father, brother, uncle or grandfather and for many women to be spinsters, maiden aunts forever because their lovers lay beneath the earth of foreign soil or were blasted to oblivion so that only a name on a granite memorial remained.

Britain had a treaty with Belgium that said that if they were attacked, we (England) would come to their aid. When the Kaiser’s Army marched into Belgium to get to France, that treaty was triggered and Britain honoured it and entered a war which at that time otherwise had nothing to do with it.

Brave Little Belgium needed help and we set about helping them so that at 10pm on 4 August, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. Lord Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

As Honorary Secretary of the Machine Gun Corps Old Comrades’ Association, I was invited to attend a special vigil service at Westminster Abbey to mark the anniversary. Built in the tenth century and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, this is London’s premier Anglican Church. During WW1, 180,000 men served in the British Machine Gun Corps, thousands more served later in the American, Canadian and Australian Machine Gun Corps. I am here to represent all of those men since there are no organisations in those other countries which specifically remember and honour men who served with a Machine Gun Corps.

Two thousand people queued slowly and patiently as only the British seem to do. Security of course was high and I for one am willing to stand in line and wait a little longer so that when I eventually take my seat inside, I feel safe.

Another war is being fought world-wide now, but if anything, a more frightening one where our enemy does not wear a uniform and carry a gun, but hides in plain sight in normal clothes but carries explosive in shoes and back pack, looking innocently like a tourist. The enemy often comes from within our ranks and looks like the son of someone in our street, who attends meetings in places of worship where others convince them the society they are part of is bad and must be destroyed. They kill and don’t care if they kill children and innocents; anyone is fair game to them.

They use both our countries’ belief in freedom of speech and religion against us and secretly despise us. They use terror to try to destroy us and in an attempt to impose their will and their laws upon us. They use laws against half the population, womenfolk, treating them as less than.

We are on our way to a special service to Remember those men who had the guts to put on uniforms and say, “This is what we stand for” for all those who fought and particularly for those who did not survive and those who wore scars on bodies and hidden in minds forever.

This is especially important and personal for me. My paternal grandfather lies buried in French soil. A place he never wished to be while alive, but feared he would remain forever. He gave his life for Brave Little Belgium, for France and for the world to have peace again.

As an individual, I am here to Remember him, 117340 Private Wilfred E Prew, of the Machine Gun Corps, who died of wounds 15 April, 1918 and is buried at Lapugnoy Military Cemetery, Near Bethune in Northern France. I want to Remember my grandmother, Sarah, who never forgot her love and especially to Remember my father, Tudor, who suffered the loss of his father, a loss which remained painful the whole of his life.

In the queue are men and women in the uniform of all our armed forces and policemen and women, doctors, nurses, firemen and women and members of St John’s Ambulance. There are Generals and Privates, politicians, actors and actresses and civil servants. Representatives, like me, of the many Corps and Regiments of the army, indeed, people representing all walks of life. The Dean of Westminster Abbey was the main celebrant, but representatives of many religions, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Catholic and Jewish, even a German Bishop, all were there and a small number of the public who applied for a ticket.

Some guests were stopping to speak to a man by the television crew: Simon Weston OBE. Simon was a Welsh Guardsman, aboard the Sir Galahad in the Falklands when it was targeted by Skyhawk bombers. Terrible fires raged aboard it because it carried fuel and ammunition as well as men. 30 Welsh Guardsmen were in his platoon; 22 were killed. Simon received nearly 50% burns to his face and body. His hands were almost burnt away but for a once handsome young man, seeing he no longer had eyelids nor a nose was traumatic in the extreme. For a while, as he endured the pain and heartache, he drank too much but eventually he changed and founded a charity – The Weston Spirit. Despite having about 30 lots of surgery to try to replace his facial features and heal his body, he has worked hard to help children accept disfigurement, other soldiers and his charity helps youngsters in trouble work towards making useful lives. This is a man to inspire. If you don’t know him, you see scars and terrible disfigurement but when you know his story, you realise he is far more beautiful inside than he would have been had he retained his handsome face.

From a village a few miles away from the village where I grew up, we are both Welsh and glad for it. Though very sorry not to be able to speak to him and shake what remains of his hand, seeing Simon Weston turned the evening to magic for me.

Finally into the Abbey where massive crystal chandeliers shine brightly and hundreds of people mill around, finding their seats. Through the Quire (choir) where the politicians sit and on towards the main alter, and I turned right just before it where I took my seat towards the rear of Poet’s Corner, a great spot since it was where most of the ‘action’ took place. I sat by the tombs and memorials of Shakespeare, Shelley and Chaucer, authors Rudyard Kipling and Dickens, an endless list of those who paint with words. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is the only American to receive such an honour and elsewhere there is a statue of Martin Luther King. The Abbey is also the final home to 17 British monarchs including Elizabeth 1st, Mary Queen of Scots.

Guest of Honour was Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall GCVO, (Prince Charles’ wife, Camilla) representing Her Majesty The Queen. Her Majesty’s Government was represented by the Deputy Prime Minister of Britain and Northern Ireland, The Right Honourable Nicholas Clegg MP and the Opposition Leader, Rt Hon Ed Milliband MP.

Each guest was given a candle in a holder and at the start of the service; these were lit as well as four large ones. During the service, one by one, in the four main areas of the Abbey, the large candles were blown out as were the candles held by everyone in that area. This was to represent that saying of the lamps going out in Europe.

Elsewhere, all over the country, the Royal British Legion organised ‘Lights Out’ events in virtually every town and the general population were asked to turn their lights out during the hour 10pm to 11pm and to light a candle. These candles were to represent the millions of people who were to die in the war, but are not forgotten. Had I not been in London, I had been asked to give a talk before the ‘Lights Out’ event at my home town, in Pembroke Castle.

Our forces had not yet started fighting a century before, no-one knew quite what to do and where to start, they only knew that the country was at war with Germany and while many viewed the idea of war with fear or dread, others were excited; none foresaw what was to follow. Young men in a wave of patriotism and excitement would offer to enlist; the war would be short lived, over by Christmas. No-one ever imagined the horrors to come. This service was to mark the beginning of our involvement in what was to become four years of death and destruction, and to have us reflect on the change from peace to war and what can happen. The first hymn started:

Jesu lover of my soul,
let me to thy bosom fly,
while the nearer waters roll,
while the tempest still is high:
By Charles Wesley 1707 - 88

The first reading was read by Sir Hew Strachan, military historian and Chichele Professor of History at Oxford. Well known British theatre actors and actresses did readings from WW1 poems and books while standing in Poet’s Corner and various Service and Church personnel read from the bible in the pulpits nearby. Many of you will have read ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Foulks, he read a moving passage from his book. One of our most beloved actresses, Dame Penelope Keith DBE DL (many of you will know her from ‘The Good Life’ and ‘To the Manor Born’) and actor, screenwriter, comedian and author Mark Gatiss (‘Sherlock’, ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Game of Thrones’) were among the readers.

The Westminster Abbey Choir is one of the best in the world; there is a famous school attached to the Abbey and the choristers are chosen from their ranks. Several hymns were sung by them alone and for some the congregation joined in.

Soldiers, politicians and men and women of the church read poems, tracts from the bible and readings from letters home and slowly the special candles were extinguished and as each one was, so all the candles in that area were too. By the end of the service, the Abbey smelt strongly of candle-wax and the air was thick with smoke, it was extremely atmospheric.

Four Guardsmen, representing the four nations (Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland) of the United Kingdom, stood at the corners of the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, heads bowed. For me, the most memorable and beautiful part of the service took place as the Collegiate Procession and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall walked through the Abbey to the Grave. Jennifer Pike played the violin, and Daniel Cook accompanied her on the organ from The Lark Ascending, composed in 1914 by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The sound in the otherwise silent Abbey was absolutely exquisite.

Then HRH The Duchess of Cornwall extinguished the flame at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior.

By the end of the service, every other candle in the Abbey was extinguished except the Paschal Candle which, ‘remained alight, in the Lady Chapel, representing the Light that forever shines in the darkness, offering us hope.’

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” These were the last words spoken at the service.

As we slowly left the Abbey, I chatted to the young man who had sat next to me, a South African on holiday in London; he had applied for one of the ‘raffle’ tickets and been lucky enough to win. He was delighted to participate in such a special night at this special place.

Near the exit lies a large stone which marks the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. After the war, it was decided that there should be a commemoration in the Abbey to represent the millions who died, but how and what form should that take? It was decided that four soldiers bodies, without identification, should be taken to a place and then one was chosen. No-one would know his name nor regiment, but his body would be taken home to England to be buried in Westminster Abbey and he would henceforth represent all those who died and be called The Unknown Warrior. Each year, when visiting dignitaries from other countries meet Her Majesty the Queen, if there is a service held at the Abbey, they lay a wreath on the grave of the Unknown Warrior. Though the stone is on the floor near the exit, no-one ever walks over it; it is always surrounded by flowers. I paused to acknowledge the tomb, the most special of graves and the man therein who represents all our dead.

As I was leaving, I was given a warm handshake by the Dean of Westminster who stood saying goodnight to one and all.

Walking away from the Abbey I turned to look and saw a fantastic light which shone way, way off up into the night sky and inside the light were thousands of little moving parts whether by design or just insects drawn to the light I do not know. This was the light installation ‘spectra’ by Ryoji Ikeda, which was set to light the London sky as the service ended and remained lit nightly for a week to mark the Centenary of the start of WW1.

Sadly, the Veterans of WW1 are now gone and unable to attend this service which was all about them. But we Remember Them.

Going home from the Abbey, I was thinking of the millions of men and women who died in WW1, “the war to end all wars” but war did not end. Less than 20 years later, World War II started. I thought of how Simon Weston was a soldier in the Falkland’s War in 1982 and guests were searched because of current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are at least 6 wars going on in Africa, another in Israel and Gaza, more in South America and the world holds its breath because of actions by Russia in the Ukraine. Christians are being targeted by Muslims, a war which harks back as far as the Crusades! In over half the world there is some kind of minor conflict, on the news literally as I write, there is civil unrest and fighting in Missouri.

Man’s inhumanity to man continues apace.

If you have the internet, please do look up:

www.westminster-abbey.org/ to see great photos and read about this ancient building.

For the full service:

Simon Weston to see the damage he suffered in war and read about a great man.

‘spectra’ by Ryoji Ikeda.

Most of all, please sit somewhere quiet and listen to ‘The Lark Ascending’ played by Jennifer Pike and hear what must be among the most beautiful pieces of music ever. The sound of its haunting melody echoing through the Abbey is not one I shall forget. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbGNJVlhoRA

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review SAW (November 2014)
and was posted online on November 14, 2014


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