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.