Epidauros, as you probably know, is the site of one of the best preserved Ancient Greek theatres in the world. Three years ago, when I was in Greece with my family, we had the great fortune to be close to Epidauros at the time of a performance of Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes. Along we went. The play tells the amazing story of the sons of Oedipus. When Oedipus left Thebes, he left the kingship of Thebes to his two children jointly. Polyneices was to rule for one year, then Eteocles, and then Polyneices and so on alternately until one of them died. It was fine for the first year – Polyneices ruled and happily handed over the kingship to his brother at the end of his year in charge; but at the end of the second year, Eteocles, having clearly enjoyed the power, refused to hand it back and sent Polyneices into exile. Polyneices was understandably furious, raised an army and attacked their city of Thebes. Now Thebes had seven gates, and the brothers put their best commanders in charge of attacking and defending each gate for the first six; at the seventh they placed each other, and, with the battle at its height, they came face to face, thrust their swords out and killed each other simultaneously. That was the plot of the play we saw that lovely evening in Greece. However, it is what happened next which I want to talk about briefly. There was a huge row in Thebes as to what to do with the bodies of the brothers. Ultimately, it was decreed that Eteocles, the defender, would be buried with full funeral rites, but that Polyneices, because he had attacked his own home city, would have his body thrown out into the dust outside the city walls for the birds and the beasts to devour. He would have no grave – and the new King Creon declared that he would execute anybody who dared to give Polyneices a proper burial. Antigone, their sister, and engaged to the new King Creon’s son, was so upset that her brother, Polyneices, would not have a proper burial, that she went against the king’s decree and went out to the city walls to bury him herself. She was caught; true to his word, though very reluctantly, King Creon buried alive Antigone, the fiancée of his own son.
Why do I tell you all this gruesome story today? Well, here we are two and a half thousand years later, and a proper burial means as much to us now as it did to the Ancient Greeks then. Leaving aside for now any religious aspects, there is no obvious logical reason for this – the dead are dead – but it is nevertheless a deep-seated reaction for people to want to give their loved ones a proper send-off, a final memory, to have a chance to say goodbye. We see it everywhere, very sadly, today. Amongst the most difficult Government Covid decisions must have been the one to reduce the numbers at funerals, and before that even, to disallow visits to elderly or dying relatives in care homes. It is without doubt heart-breaking for all involved; yet it is only really through the heartbreak of what is going on around us now that we can even begin to understand what the families of the 756 Old Bedfordians who were lost in the two world wars might have gone through – and indeed hundreds of other OB families who similarly lost loved ones in other conflicts around the world. The vast majority of men who died in combat never came home for their families to say goodbye to. Many of them do not have graves at all. The search for bodies after World War 1 went on deep into the 1920s – great search parties called Exhumation Companies scoured battlefields again and again to find them. It seems incredible, but some are still being found – only two years ago, 125 bodies were found entombed in a perfectly preserved German trench system from the First World War – and indeed every single year more are uncovered. More often than not, they cannot be identified.
Today, we remember every single one of them. In a moment, I will continue to read out, alphabetically, names of some of the OBs who died in World War 1, a tradition that goes back about a dozen years; we have still not got through them all. I want you to listen today not just to the names and the ages, old and young, of these fallen men, but to dwell particularly on where they died. None of them were anywhere near home and their loved ones; some of them only have approximate details; some are clustered – the sheer number who died at Ypres, for instance, is genuinely terrifying; and some are in places of which you and indeed their own families may never have heard. All the families got back was a brief telegram of condolence for a lost son, husband, father; we now have the duty, and indeed the privilege, to remember them.