Remembrance Day Homily

Category: General

Given by the Master in Chapel, Sunday 12th November

It is the morning after the last performance of a remarkable production of ‘Journey’s End’.

C H Sorley (C1 1908-15) wrote:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

This great poem was found in the Old Marlburian poet, Charles Hamilton Sorley’s kit bag after he had died on October 13th, 1915, at the battle of Loos shot by a German sniper. It is published in his work “Marlborough and Other Poems”.  For Sorley, in the words of Professor Howard of Cape Breton University, Canada, “Duty was crucial and complex in equal measure, producing an ethical and creative determination never to shirk perhaps the most basic human duty of all: the duty to always question one’s duty.” That is a particularly Marlburian trait.

Exactly, to the day, 102 years later, 64 Marlburians set out from Court as you, the current College, gave them a rousing send off. Two and a half days later and 225 miles on, all 64 reached (the Architect) Sir Edwin Lutyen’s famous commemorative arch at Thiepval in the County of the Somme. Here, no less than 72,246 names of the fallen and missing British and South African servicemen who fell between July 1915 and February 1918 (that is those who are unidentified with no name grave), are recorded for posterity carved and around a massive arch. 42 of our 749 Old Marlburians are amongst them…. People doing their duty for their country, many questioning the purpose of such duty.

The statistics for World War One defy belief. Every country was decimated but, if you take the British Empire alone, estimates (and they are far from accurate) say that 8.9 million were mobilised. Nearly a million died and 35.8% of all mobilised forces were killed, wounded or missing. It defies belief and yet, it happened all over again just 20 years later… From our Marlburian perspective a further 415 deaths occurred.

Just what does it mean to be Marlburian? What is the heritage and what does it depend upon? Tentatively, let me venture a few thoughts: It means being inclusive not exclusive… We wish to live in a world without barriers…. (Currently the world is putting them up). We would like a world where forgiveness matters, where resilience counts but, in 2017 the wider world feels less tolerant, more frightened and more mentally stressed…. Are we more self-obsessed, more money conscious, more about celebrity first? …. More bitter because we are less sensitive and aware? Yet, you Marlburians are good examples of this; we know that a life lived to the full can be fun, rewarding and above all, conducted in a way where it is our responsibility to give back. The echoes of history and culture really matter.

So, look ahead / be optimistic. Use your considerable talents for a better world – as a generation you can be more principled / less prejudiced with a healthy respect for people of different backgrounds, beliefs and attitudes. Your education can build personality, character and courage through the attitudes you develop. We have to work at it but the struggle we face is to create a bright new dawn. That is what they fought for. So, back to the Somme with a response to Sorley:


Beneath an azure sky we remembered them.
42 names; timeless in Thiepval stone.
We came to commemorate yet celebrate,
A few platoons of earnest fellowship.

Three cheers rang out in Malborough's court.
We departed the same day Sorley fell,
An unfinished sonnet in his kit bag.

Now, two days on, Lutyens arch stood proud.
So were we; our mission fulfilled,
Yet still alert to half fledged poetry.

A vestigial torch still flickers
We crave that better world for which two wars were fought.
These dead are not dead; no longer mouthless.
We recognise these spooks for evermore.

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