Martyn Gough reflects on Remembrance in the Armed Forces
“Father, can we just pause for 10 minutes over the site, say some prayers, drop a wreath and then we can sail on?” Those were the words said to me by the Captain of HMS NEWCASTLE on an operation over 20 years ago. We were sailing over the spot in the Far East near to where HMS PRINCE OF WALES had been sunk, some 60 years earlier. The rusting remains lay far below us and some of the ship’s divers had attached a white ensign to the rusting hulk. Nobody onboard HMS NEWCASTLE knew any of the crew of this ship, but it was important to stop, to recall, to pray. Even the most tattooed hardened bosun came and stood on the flight deck and in simplicity we remembered. Did the Ship’s Company pray? I do not know. But I do know that it was important for them to stop, to pause and to remember.
November is the month of remembering. All Saints, All Souls, and Remembrance Sunday are marked for many in the life of the nation as an important time. Many serving personnel are chosen for ceremonial duties around Remembrance Sunday and will spend weeks rehearsing, not only to be at the Cenotaph, but also at the Albert Hall, at the Westminster Abbey Garden of Remembrance, and countless other memorials where serving members of the Armed Forces along with veterans and members of the public will gather to reflect, recall and remember.
We all know of the war memorials in our churches and in our parks and town centres. We are familiar with the Cenotaph in London, the focus of the nation’s remembrance in November, where here many veterans also gather through the year for regimental memorials. These are significant and important parts of our national story, as are the Commonwealth Graves around the world; designed by architects and craftsmen, they stand the test of time. For Service personnel and for veterans, during a conflict such as Iraq, the Falklands or Afghanistan, when a colleague is killed, so very often, simple crosses of rough wood, rocks and mortar or gun shells are assembled and left at a wayside shrine to remember the marine, the sailor, the soldier or the airman who fell near there.
The bonds that tie military people together are forged from day one of basic training. You learn the need to trust your ‘oppo’ the people who you have been thrown together with; you learn to trust them in every aspect of your life. There is no private life in basic training because on operations there is no private life. You learn the real world of openness and trust, of them being honest with you. Your classmates will get your through basic training because when you are on the ground on operations, in a submarine or on an air detachment, you will need them, really need them. You know that very often your own life depends not just on the technical ability of those you serve alongside, but that they will have your back. Service people go away for long periods of time and others become their families at sea or in camp. You work, you sleep, you eat next to people whom you have not chosen to be part of your circle, but you are thrown together. So, when the improvised device goes off and blows up the armored vehicle, when the sniper from the village gets lucky, when the engineering failure sees a fire in the Antarctic and there’s no help, when there is a catastrophic engine fail midflight – you are not losing a work colleague, you are losing part of yourself. Because that could so easily have been you.
Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph, at the local War Memorial, at a school or church, or gathering at the National Memorial Arboretum gives to those who have served or still serve their country not only a chance to recall but be thankful for the friendship. For the service person, yes, there may be a particular person we recall; for me it’s a mosaic, those who died when two helicopters crashed off HMS ARK Royal in the Gulf, the Warrant Officer shot in Helmand Province, the Officer shot in a submarine; all served and it is my duty, my privilege, to remember.
Remembrance is our calling to mind the person, the events that we shared. The act of remembrance is the hope of a better future, recollection that moves us through reconciliation and into resurrection. Remembrance is certainly not a rehearsing of past failure or glory but that bringing into the present those who have been part of our circle. We remember but we also move on. Armed Service in the UK is always about seeking peace and pursuing it. Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen- they go off and they fight, they fight for freedom, for justice and for peace, but they fight so that you do not have to. Today we continue to seek peace, but we do so in the shadows of those who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice. We will remember them. That is the least we can do.
When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today.
The Venerable Martyn Gough is a former Chaplain of the Fleet and Archdeacon of the Royal Navy.