Wednesday, 24 September 2014

They shall not grow old" - the British Legion is mis-using these words.

This excerpt form Lawrence Binyon's poem "For the Fallen" is frequently used at the funerals of soldiers, and at memorial ceremonies for them such as Armistice Day:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them. 

The poem is called "For the Fallen," i.e. for those who die in battle.

These words, followed by the Last Post bugle call, are profoundly moving when uttered at the funeral of a soldier who has died in action, or on active service. It is not to glorify war to observe that these simple lines have rung eloquently and painfully true to generations of English-speaking people around the world.

However, the British Legion uses them in the funerals of old soldiers. A while ago I attended one such funeral. As a national serviceman he had fought bravely in one of the small but nasty wars during the twilight of the British Empire. He died in his mid seventies, over fifty years after his military service.

It abrurptly dawned on me that the first two lines of the Exhortation, as the Legion calls it, were wildly inappropriate for this man. He had, I'm pleased to say, grown old; he had survived the patrols and ambushes of his youth, raised a family, enjoyed the rest of his life. Age had wearied him, in the way that it wearies anyone who lives out a reasonably full life-span.

The last two lines, "At the going down of the sun..." were entirely appropriate, and could be used at anyone's funeral, especially if you subsitute "him" or "her" for "them."

It's about time the British Legion stopped mis-using these words; the worst thing that could happen to them is over-familiarity. We need these words in the full form, for the dreadful day when a family has to say goodbye to a young man or woman who will not grow old.



  1. Entirely agree!

    And hurrah for growing old and the privilege it represents...

  2. I'm weorking on the growing old bit, GiGFY, so far so good. And I certainly feel privileged. And of course a glass of porter certainly helps! Thanks for dropping by.

  3. Hmph. All part of the heroisation (neol) of everyone who ever wore a uniform. Absurd in its own right, of course. Thus is war glorified and the remembrance of the dead turned into a patriotic fest. It's a sentimentalising tendency that pays no heed to ex-soldiers sleeping rough or serving prison sentences, which they do in disproportionate numbers. Real heroism is found just as often on civvy street, if less pyrotechnically expressed.

    1. I don't know who could disagree with your statement Charles that real heroism is found in civvy street, but a funeral is a funeral, and I'm not convinced that having old soldiers carry the coffin in and having the Last Post sounded is heroisation. He didn't think he was hero, nor did his family; he was, however, proud of his military service, and so were they. Would it were possible to ease the lot of distressed ex-soldiers by not playing the Last Post!

      Thanks for coming by.

  4. Trouble is, they don't think about the meaning; they just like the sound of it.

  5. You have my head GM, but not my heart.

    Of course this makes no sense at all in the context of a nonagenarian being sent off at the end of long life, surrounded by children, grand and great grandchildren, but, but...
    So much of what we say at funerals is nonsense - except to the people present. I'd blush for 90% of my words if Reason's gimlet gaze was turned on them.
    Why apply it rigorously here? Actually, especially here. When the words are said, the standards are lowered and the Last Post rings out, who can be unmoved? Hokum, but richly resonant too.

  6. We are not unmoved Vale, we just want to be moved by things that have truth in them! They might remember him at the rising ofd the sun etc, but part of the pattern of this man's life was the way he grew old and then ill. Surely we should avoid hokum as often as possible!
    Thanks for coming by.

  7. I was going to write that the British Legion should be challenged to come up with something new but it's the poets we need to look to really - there's a gauntlet thrown down.
    I put a lot of the problem down to remembrance day - it has fixed an idea of how soldiers should be honoured and remembered in our national consciousness, hasn't it?

  8. I think you're right about Remembrance Day Vale, and that's not going to change in a hurry, even if it should. (Discuss...)

    My post was a little naive, in that each old soldier's funeral is down to the family and the local British Legion, not some sort of national ruling. The Exhortation is pretty firmly established, and at the funeral in question, it was said by the standard bearer, not by me. Had I been asked to say it, I think I might have asked the family, as tactfully as I could, if they really wanted the first two lines left in?