Last night in the chapel of Worcester College Oxford we held our annual service of Remembrance. This is a tradition in which I read out the Roll of Honour, the names of the members of the College who fell in the two world wars, and then the Last Post is sounded and we keep two minutes’ silence. It was especially moving this year, being the exact centenary of the signature of the Armistice at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The ever-excellent choir began with Douglas Guest’s haunting setting of Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen“. Joining us in a packed chapel were the great-nephew of a College member, Lieutenant Charles Saunders, and the granddaughter and great-grandson of another, Lionel Beach, who both died in the Great War.
During those two minutes’ silence, I also thought of the poets who died — Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Charles Sorley. Of Ivor Gurney, who never really recovered from his shell shock. And of the way in which literature helped to shape the response to the war: the previous night, our student drama society staged a terrific production of Journey’s End in a local church. That play, together with the growing influence of the poetry of Owen and Sassoon, and the novels and memoirs of the war — such as Graves’s Goodbye to all That and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, with its elegiac closing image of a veteran playing the Last Post as if bidding farewell to all the old codes of patriotism — effected a huge cultural shift. The best treatment of all this remains Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, surely one of the twentieth-century’s finest works of literary scholarship.
At the end of four years’ remembrance of 1914-1918, I thought it would be worth preserving — mostly for the benefit of College alumni — the sermon that I preached on the same occasion back in 2014. Here is a link: