Remembrance, as we now know it, is not as straightforward as it might first appear. What would seem to us now as natural, inevitable – the individual commemoration of each fallen soldier – was in fact quite a new idea at the start of the Great War. The fact that each serviceman should have his own grave, with a stone and a name or – if his body couldn’t be found – an inscription on one of the many memorials to the missing is largely thanks to the tireless work of one man, Fabian Ware, founder of what it now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The bugle call that is synonymous with remembrance was, in fact, merely the last of many signals that punctuated the day in camp, ensuring soldiers got to where they were required to be on time and, in the case of The Last Post, signalled that sentries had been posted and the camp was secure for the night.
And those great words by Laurence Binyon, without which no remembrance ceremony would now be complete, were written not towards the end of the Great War when the death toll mounted, nor in 1918 when the ‘intolerably nameless names’ were being remembered, but in September 1914 – within weeks of the outbreak of war, and well before the scale of the slaughter was even considered a remote – and awful – possibility.
The idea for this iconic poem came to Binyon while on holiday in Cornwall. ‘The stanza They Shall Grow Not Old,’ (Binyon explained when interviewed in 1939 on the eve of the outbreak of another war) ‘was written first and dictated the rhythmical movement of the whole poem.’ Interesting that, by then, Binyon seems to have settled on the word order ‘grow not’ rather than ‘not grow [old]’. Both exist in his early versions of the poem, but I’ve always thought ‘grow not old’ carries much more meaning, and is indeed why the verse still resonates so movingly today, and has become an icon of remembrance day.
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
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 day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.