Address given at Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 14 November 2021, Remembrance Sunday, by Lt Gen David Leakey CMG, CVO, CBE.

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” So said Dwight D Eisenhower, one of the great American generals of the Second World War.

It’s unfashionable, in fact it is probably in bad taste to describe in graphic detail conditions on the battlefields of the Great War – the rat-infested filth, disease, demonic fear, ear bursting noise, and dismembered bodies littering the trenches and hanging off the barbed wire in no man’s land.

It was just as painful to hear on the radio recently a rather factual account by a tank commander in the second world war: “my tank was hit and penetrated by an armour piercing shell. My gunner sitting slightly below me in the turret took the hit. His head was knocked clean off into my lap, his body slumped to the turret floor. The tank caught fire. We baled out, but not before the burning petrol had incinerated my operator, and my driver was badly burned trying to help him out. The smell … and so on.”

And there are similar stories of fighting in the air and at sea as well, no prettier and just as harrowing. We admire those men, and they were almost exclusively men in the front line of fighting in the two World Wars – we admire them for their courage, and for making such little fuss about it when they came back.

There are still men and women alive, here in the Abbey, who daily remember their loved ones lost in the Second World War or in conflicts since then. And there are still servicemen and women who suffer every day from the result of wounds or the mental impact of war. They are reminded of it every day of their lives.

And we make a point of setting aside a day each year specially to remember those soldiers, sailors and airmen, to honour them for the sacrifice which they made and for the debt which we owe them – for the peace which they finally brought about and for the freedom and the quality of life which we enjoy today.

Since the second world war, our armed forces have been involved in fighting campaigns almost every single year, that is 76 years, and our armed forces have continued to take casualties. So today we remember also those who have given their lives in the fighting within the recent years of our own lives – in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.

The nature of war is different today. There are fewer battles of mass slaughter – more precision weapons. There are more peace-keeping operations rather than all-out war-fighting. And women too are now directly deployed in combat roles.

I watched a BBC reporter interviewing a British soldier in Bosnia in 1992. He asked whether the soldier thought himself lucky to be just ‘peace-keeping’ rather than fighting a war. The soldier looked at him in disbelief and replied: “I lost two of my mates in a vehicle blown up on a landmine yesterday, and I was shot at twice today by a sniper on the other side of that building – it doesn’t feel like peace-keeping, it feels like a war, where I’m standing.”

Every year military charities collect money to help care and support those who suffer as a consequence of their military service, regardless of whether the impact has been physical or mental. The poppy which we all wear is a poignant symbol of our remembrance and of our charity giving. Thank you for your generosity to those military charities.

Well that’s it. What more can one say without repeating the tributes and memorials, without bringing up more tales of valour and be accused, possibly, of glorifying war?

But there is more to say and think about. If you walk down Whitehall in London, you will see the Cenotaph where today the Royal Family and political leaders will lay wreaths. Fifty yards up from the Cenotaph is another similar size memorial called “Women of World War Two”, erected only in 2005 – 60 years after the end of World War Two.

It commemorates the many roles which women took on in the War, vital jobs in industry and on the land – farming, and dangerous jobs in munition factories, which men had left in order to join up and fight. It is right that we remember and commemorate the huge contribution of women in the Wars.

What is not remembered, what is not remembered is the suffering of families at home, especially women, not just when a telegram was delivered reporting the death of a husband or son killed in the fighting, but the ever-present worry of not knowing – whether your husband or father or son would come back – whether alive or half dead – mentally or physically.  It has traditionally been women who have shouldered the burden of this worry, the waiting at home and then the lifelong task of caring for a wounded body or a wounded mind.

Nowadays, with women routinely in front line combat, it is also men who are at home with their children worrying whether their wife, their daughter, their mother will come back from combat operations – whether alive or half dead.

We should never forget the agony endured by the families at home during operations, waiting for news, and especially when the bodies are brought home.

As the colonel of my regiment, I attended the repatriation ceremonies of soldiers brought back from recent operations in coffins, and I recall vividly one particular funeral.

A corporal in my regiment was 25 years old. He was an outstanding young man – a brilliant comedian, highly professional, hugely popular in the Regiment and adored by his wife and two young children. He was killed in Afghanistan. His wife – only 23 – was left with two children aged just four and two. They no longer had an Army quarter to live in; they moved back to her family in a rural area of Norfolk.

The church in Kings Lynn was packed for this funeral – with loudspeakers and big screens in the churchyard for those who could not find a seat or standing room inside the Church.

The service started with the coffin being carried down the aisle by six soldiers from the corporal’s squadron. Following slowly behind the coffin was the corporal’s young widow. She was carrying their two-year-old daughter; and their four-year-old son was toddling along holding his mother’s hand. The coffin was lifted-up and placed on tall trestles in the nave so that everyone could see it. The Church was totally silent. The young widow lifted the two-year-old up to place her favourite teddy-bear on Daddy’s coffin by his medals; and then, the four-year-old stood up on a step so that he too could leave a special toy on the coffin. Grandmother was on hand to take the children home at that point. There was a choked silence in the church as the children left, the whole congregation sharing silently the grief of the widow and the sadness for those children losing their father – something which they might not fully understand until later in their young lives. Emotions were high.

Then the funeral service began, less of a funeral – more a celebration of the corporal’s life. The Commanding Officer delivered a wonderful, even entertaining tribute to the corporal. This was followed by one of the corporal’s best regimental friends who also gave an account – unvarnished in language – but richly laced with humorous tales of their misdeeds at school, in training and during their time together in the Regiment. It was a celebration of that young man’s life.

And then the young widow, who had never spoken in public in her life came to the lectern.  In front of hundreds of people, she gave an account of their love and life together and with their children, illustrated by a slide show on big screens of family photos, some of them hilarious, and accompanied by some of their favourite music. There was much laughter in the church. Despite her grief, her voice never faltered, the joy of their life and love together was on full display. It was an extraordinary feat for someone who was about to say goodbye to her husband and the father of her two children.

She was stoic and proud even as the shots of the firing party rang out over the grave at the interment in the cemetery.

That corporal was a decent, brave and professional soldier, but he was gone with full military honours. His widow and the mother of their children – my goodness she was the one who had to be courageous, not in the moment of a battle but at the lectern during a funeral, and for the rest of her and her children’s life.

When you remember the soldiers, sailors and airmen who gave their lives, remember also the grief of families, the bereaved parents, the widows and the children who will only ever have a distant memory of their dad or mum.

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