It is an honour to be here with you today.
I’d like to pay tribute to everyone at the Western Front Association.
Not just for your efforts that have gone into organising today’s commemoration, but for your tireless work all year round to preserve the memory of those who fought and fell in the First World War.
The strength of your Association lies in knowing when we join to say, “We will remember them” it is more than sentiment.
It is belief in the value of our shared history.
It is respect in the notion of true solidarity with those who serve and who continue to serve us.
Above all, it is understanding that Remembrance is timeless –
not simply about what came before, but something that lives within us, something we will pass on through the generations.
This year’s period of Remembrance takes place against the backdrop of our departure from Afghanistan.
An episode that continues to cause widespread disillusionment and, in many cases, severe anguish.
Our relationship with Afghanistan is not over.
Its legacy will live long. Memories and feelings do not fade into the sky like the last plane leaving Kabul, rather they are seared into the hearts and minds of those affected:
Parents who lost children still grieve.
Veterans who served still hurt.
Families who were separated still agonise.
All now left asking the same question.
Remembrance will always be rooted in our relationship with the Britain of yesterday.
But given the devastating events over the summer, it is important we reflect on the meaning of Remembrance to the Britain of today;
and what relevance it has to the Britain of tomorrow.
We are gathered here today in the spiritual home of the
Household Division – a place that has a lasting connection with the Britain of yesterday.
This chapel was razed to the ground during the last world war and rebuilt from the ashes.
It stood through several other conflicts that have shaped generation after generation.
None more so than the First World War: the conflict that gave birth to the concept of Remembrance as we know it.
In 1914, there were 16,000 towns and villages across Britain.
Only 53 – the so called ‘thankful villages’ – would make it to the end of the War without having lost someone.
Every community has its story to tell. Including my own.
In Barnsley, we have a square dedicated to the Barnsley Pals battalions. Men who stepped forward to answer the call.
Miners, glassworkers, stonemasons, clerics – many of them friends and neighbours.
They joined-up together, trained together, and ultimately, many of them died together.
A few years ago, I travelled to Serre in northern France, where the Barnsley Pals fought at the Battle of the Somme.
Standing over their graves was an incredibly sobering experience.
It felt like they were a long way from home.
Some believe they died in a battle that – though appalling – was necessary and needed to be fought.
Others argue their sacrifice was futile, in a war that achieved nothing, and that could and should have been avoided.
Many other conflicts that have claimed the lives of our servicemen and women have sparked similar differences of opinion, none more recent than the War in Afghanistan.
Regardless of your opinion, my contention is the same.
No matter what we think of the decisions that have sent our soldiers into conflict down the ages – whether to Serre or Sangin –
we have a duty to support our Armed Forces and bear witness to their sacrifice.
Remembrance affords us a chance to ensure that their service, courage, and memory is never forgotten.
But what does Remembrance mean to the Britain of today?
150,000 men and women from our Armed Forces deployed to Afghanistan, tragically 457 never came home.
Thousands are today still suffering terribly with the mental and physical effects of the campaign.
Just as it was more than a century ago, every community has its story to tell. Once again, including my own.
Private Matthew Thornton, The Yorkshire Regiment.
Marine David Marsh, The Royal Marines.
And Captain Martin Driver, The Royal Anglian Regiment.
Three soldiers who stepped forward to answer the call – just like their ancestors in the Barnsley Pals – but didn’t make it back home.
That’s why this morning – as we do every Armistice Day – we came together in the spirit of commemoration, to remember:
Not just those who sacrificed their lives for us.
But also, the veterans whose lives have been changed by conflict.
And the families whose loved ones did not come home.
Respect. Compassion. Solidarity.
We can’t ever know what they’re going through, but we can show that we care, that we recognise their pain and that we stand with them.
Our lives are incredibly fast-moving and full of distractions.
There are few things more poignant than when an entire country falls silent together as we did this morning.
A rare moment to collectively reflect on our past,
be mindful of our present and contemplate our future – the importance of which we should never overlook.
“I realise that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war – and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.”
Words as true today as when they were first spoken by President Kennedy nearly 60 years ago.
The task is urgent because the chance of securing a better tomorrow relies on us pursuing the right course.
The task is urgent because the fate of millions rests on us
pursuing the right course.
The task is urgent because repaying the debt we owe those who laid down their lives depends on us pursuing the right course.
It is why I chose the following words on the wreath I laid at the Cenotaph:
“To honour the memory of those who served and sacrificed, we must strive for a more peaceful future.”
Remembrance plays an important part in ensuring the cost of peace and the consequence of war are at the forefront of our minds so that next time we pursue the right course.
If we truly commit to doing so, then no lives were ever lost in vain.
The challenge ahead of us is new and herculean. But the values on which our success rests are old and within reach.
So today, let us come together, as we have before and how we will again:
In respect for the fallen;
In solidarity with their loved ones;
In support for those who serve us still;
And in enduring hope for a more peaceful and prosperous future.