For all of us this year’s Remembrance Sunday was a novel experience. I have early memories of my father in his best suit and overcoat, medals glistening on his chest, setting out on the short walk to lay the poppy wreath on behalf of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers on our village war memorial.
There are some things however that never change. A central part of the commemoration is the Exhortation ‘They shall grow not old’. This is the fourth stanza of seven of the poem ‘For the Fallen’ written by Laurence Binyon in September 1914. The lines have been adopted by the British Legion and others as an Exhortation for ceremonies of Remembrance to commemorate fallen servicemen and women. It is used every day in the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres.
The three central stanzas of ‘For the Fallen’ have become known as ‘The Ode of Remembrance ‘and are used worldwide as a tribute to all casualties of war regardless of their nationality.
THE ODE OF REMEMBRANCE
They went with song to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds undaunted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the daytime;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
There are two plaques in Cornwall which are alleged to be the site where the poem was written but what is certain is that it was first published in The Times on 21st September 1914. Rudyard Kipling, whose son was killed in action in 1915, described ‘For the Fallen’ as ‘the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language’.
The poem was written after the British Expeditionary Force had suffered severe casualties at Mons, during the retreat to Le Cateau on 26th August and at the First Battle of the Marne. Binyon, like many others at home, was greatly distressed by the devastation and human suffering on the Western Front.
Binyon was not a soldier. He was 45 when the war started and too old to enlist. He did however volunteer as a hospital orderly in his holidays in both 1915 and 1916. In 1915 he volunteered at a British Hospital for French soldiers, Hopitale Temporaire d’Arc-en-Barrous in Haute Marne, working as a hospital orderly. He returned in the summer of 1916 and took care of soldiers taken in from the Verdun battlefield. He wrote about his experiences in ‘For Dauntless France’ (1918) and two of his other poems ‘Fetching the Wounded’ and ‘Distant Guns ‘were inspired by his hospital service in France.
Robert Binyon came up to Trinity College, Oxford in 1888, and in 1890 was awarded Oxford University’s Newdigate prize for poetry. After graduation he began his distinguished career at the British Museum, and in 1933/4 became Norton Professor of poetry at Harvard University.
Trinity College Library purchased in 1998 a handwritten copy written in 1916 by Binyon of ‘For the Fallen’. It has one very significant difference to the original as for the first line of the fourth stanza he wrote, ‘Age shall not wither them’. This perhaps confirms the view that the whole tone of the poem is resonant of the King James Bible and Shakespeare. In Anthony and Cleopatra, it is said of Cleopatra ‘Age shall not wither her, nor custom stale’.
Another graduate of Trinity College is Captain Noel Chavasse VC. He is remembered on the memorial in the College Library, alongside the 155 other members of the College who fell in the First World War. There is also a memorial to Captain Chavasse at the entrance to the Library. I am aware of at least three other memorials to Chavasse in Oxford.
Laurence Binyon 1869-1943
How many War Memorials?
Following the talk I gave in September I have been thinking further about how and why fallen servicemen came to be recorded on different war memorials. There was a huge variation from place to place depending on the criteria (often informally set) for each individual memorial. Attendance at a particular school, being the member of a congregation, being born in a place, having parents who organised or indeed paid for a memorial to be built, were all reasons for someone being included on a memorial. Names apparently missed off a memorial could simply be that their family had moved away or could not afford to contribute to the war memorial fund. In other cases people felt the death must be recognised and recorded on a memorial however tenuous their link with a place. Understanding the reasoning behind names going onto a particular memorial helps to explain why some are commemorated on a number of different memorials in a number of different places.
In my talk I discussed James Rothwell, who appears on the Catholic Church Memorial in Coleshill but who never lived there. His only link to the town was through being emigrated to Canada by the Catholic Emigration Association; the Secretary of this organisation was Coleshill's Parish Priest, Father Hudson.
Another Coleshill man who is remembered on at least six different war memorials around the UK is Captain AB Crawford. Basil Crawford was born in Coleshill in 1891 and briefly attended King Edward's School, Birmingham and then Coleshill Grammar School. His father (a doctor) moved the family to Nottinghamshire where Basil attended Nottingham Boys School, then Oundle School where he was a talented cricketer and member of the Officer Training Corps. He later played county cricket for both Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire. Captain Crawford was killed in action on the 10th May 1916 at the age of just 24 and buried in Plot III, Row F, Grave 8 St Vaast Post Military Cemetery, Richebourg-L'avoue. He is remembered on the Coleshill Grammar School Memorial, in the KES Memorial Chapel, on the Nottingham Boys High School Memorial, the Oundle School Memorial and Book of Remembrance, the Nottingham County Cricketers' Memorial at Trent Bridge and the All Saints War Memorial, Stanton Hill, Nottinghamshire. He appears on the Stanton Hill Memorial as this is where his parents were living at the time of his death. The Nottingham County Cricketers' Memorial was unveiled in 2018 and so even today, men are being recorded on additional memorials./
Dr Sarah Jane Veevers