Remembrance is all about love – a love of mankind, a love of God, a love that transcends wars, learns from the past and sets out to avoid conflict. It has not always been that way. A Roman general 2000 years ago would have expected to celebrate what was known as “a triumph” upon defeating his enemy. Such a triumph would involve a procession through the streets of Rome, but not the sort of parade one might expect these days. A Roman triumphal procession would be led by the leaders of the defeated nations, chained and ready for public execution, being jeered and spat at by the watching masses, and being followed by their families, by other defeated soldiers and all the spoils of war which had been gathered in victory. The victorious Romans, with legions of soldiers led by their general, himself adorned with wreaths and sitting atop a four horse chariot, followed on behind the vanquished to cheers from the crowd. The scene displayed scorn of the defeated and hero worship of the victors. Roman architecture mirrored this. The triumphal arches set up in the forum for great victories depicted sculptures of winning battles, of humbled enemies cast down by the Roman sword, of stolen rewards and cowering captives; they have as much to do with ridicule of the enemy as they do with praise for their own bravery. There is no memory of individual Roman deaths; just revelling in the glory of a nation over the misfortune of another.
Contrast that with the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, set up in the 19th century to commemorate those who died in the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars; it depicts not only friezes of the great battles, but also crucially the names of all the generals who died. Famously, and brilliantly, it includes beneath it the tomb of the unknown soldier. Next to it is the first eternal flame to be lit since the eternal flame of Rome itself was extinguished. The monument of the Arc de Triomphe harps back to Roman triumphs, but dwells on the dreadful loss of ordinary human life. The victory parade that passed through the Arc de Triomphe after the Second World War certainly did not include a parade of the enemy. And in this century, it is far more usual to find monuments which list all of the dead, such as our own boards in the Memorial Hall. There is little glorification or triumph; simply memory of the ultimate sacrifice that individuals have paid.
Fast forward finally to the war in Iraq in 2003. Colonel Tim Collins addresses his troops in Kuwait on the eve of battle. He says this:
“Remember, we go to Iraq to liberate and not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country, but show respect for them. If there are casualties of war, then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning, they did not plan to die this way. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly and make their graves”.
Boys, in this age of computer games and violent movies, which can serve to anesthetise our minds against the appalling horrors of war, the words of Colonel Collins only 12 years ago are inspirational, as indeed now is this annual day of remembrance. Sadness, dignity and gratitude have steadily replaced triumphalism and disrespect in the way that generations have reacted to winning conflicts. We remember the bravery of those who died for us and for our liberty; we remember all the innocent people on both sides of every conflict who died in ways too inglorious to contemplate; we remember in particular the Old Bedfordians who died in the two world wars, Old Bedfordians who numbered almost as many as there are boys in this Great Hall today; we remember all those loved ones whom they left behind. We thank God for them; and we thank God that he has given us the capacity to love mankind and has brought us to greater understanding of how to remember those gone by. It is only through love that we can appreciate them; it is only through love that we can learn the lessons of the past. I leave you with God’s own words, spoken through his Son in the Gospel of St John. He simply said “This is my command: love one another”.