They shall grow not old

On Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday we will hear again the well known central verse from the poem For the Fallen that is regularly used as an exhortation and statement that tells those listening of our determination neither to forget, nor to overlook, the efforts and sacrifices of those who served our country and Commonwealth in the First and Second World Wars, and subsequent wars and conflicts.

Strangely though, this poem wasn’t written by a soldier who had seen action, but by Laurence Binyon, a 45 year old keeper of oriental prints and drawings at the British Museum. He wrote it sitting on a cliff-top at Polzeath in Cornwall in early September 1914, just a few weeks after the Great War began.

The poem has a smooth and rhythmic flow and uses formal, elegant language that, today, encapsulates the deep sense of respect, admiration and grief which marks our modern act of collective remembrance. The verse They Shall Grow Not Old… was actually written first, and its words, with their sombre repetitive rhythm, give it an enduring power when we hear them read aloud in public.

As the Great War progressed, and the casualties grew, its words resonated greatly with those who had lost husbands, sons, brothers and friends and neighbours. The whole poem has a spiritual depth and meaning, and its final verse, with its imagery of stars sparkling in the infinity of the heavens, gave those left behind both consolation and hope.

But at its heart its middle verse in particular means that, even now some 102 years later, we are determined We will remember them. The verse was set to music by several composers including Sir Edward Elgar in 1917. Their various compositions are for soloists and choirs, accompanied by orchestras and/or pipe organs.

And it was echoes of that same verse that came into my mind in the middle of the night. They seemed to amalgamate, quite naturally, with two events that happened earlier in the year. The first occurred when a Wednesday group, that meet and sing for fun, learned a short West African Song invoking the ancestors – it was a song that really moved me with its simplicity in line and harmony. It was called Pora samine and we sang it as part of an Oxfordshire choir in the Sheldonian Theatre in mid-March.

The second event was the service on the centenary of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July. In preparing for the service I came across a photograph of a grave in Amiens of a soldier who had fought for the French forces in the battle. He was in Les Tirailleurs Senegalais and would have been recruited from the French Colonies in West Africa.

Those two events and the verse from For the Fallen seemed to gel together, and I could imagine relatives of that soldier standing in the cemetery singing Pora samine just as I can imagine the tune adapted for They shall grow not old . . . being sung within the memorials at Menin Gate, Thiepval and Tyne Cot.

If you are able to attend the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance in All Saints’ on the evening of 11th November, you will hear the poem read in full, with our Community choir, conducted by Louise Woodgate, singing, unaccompanied, the middle verse They shall grow not old.