Report on our visit to the commemorative service of World War One in Westminster on August 4th 2014
This guest blog is written by Hilary Haworth, Chair of Education and Current Affairs committee in Buckinghamshire Federation of Women’s Institutes
What a privilege to be able to take part in the commemorative service for the Centenary of the outbreak of World War One, late in the evening of August 4th. Lynn Foster and I were there representing the Buckinghamshire Federation of Women’s Institutes. We were slightly outclassed from the start, joining the queue that snaked around the outside of Westminster Abbey just in front of two leaders of the British Sikh community and just behind Harriet Harman, MP.
Once past security, there was a real sense of vigil from the very beginning. We were spared the voice- overs and interviews which the BBC feels obliged to conduct over the organ music at such occasions as we filed in through the Great West Door, past the stunning floral border to the grave of the unknown soldier, and on to our seats.
After we had all lit our candles and once all the great and the good had processed in, there was a true silence inside the Abbey; only the hum of a helicopter outside served to remind us not only of the intensity of the security operation in progress, but also how changed is our world from that of 1914 when planes were called upon to defend us which appear impossibly flimsy today. The organist played an improvisation on the harmonies of the hymn tune Aberystwyth very softly as the Duchess of Cornwall arrived, which led wondrously well into the only Congregational hymn of the evening Jesu, Lover of my soul.
The music throughout the service was particularly well chosen. I shall never forget the sense I had of ‘inhabiting’ the sound of Vaughan Williams’ Kyrie, as its tendrils were sent coiling around the Abbey by a choir utterly in command of its repertoire, its ensemble and its acoustic space. Another sound that will stay with me is the very human ‘last breath’ sigh of a hundred or so candles being blown out at once around me.
Unafraid of choosing European composers as well as British, the designers of this commemoration were also courageous to choose not only the more ‘obvious’ readings and reflections. It acknowledged that not all perspectives on the war accord with those we are used to hearing in the voices of the major poets of the time; we are befuddled, now, by the foolhardiness in the Rose Macauley poem read by Dame Penelope Keith, or the buoyancy in a letter home from a soldier just off to the front - but both of these would have been genuinely felt and made perfect sense at the time.
The final silence, in as much gloom as TV cameras can tolerate, was also perfectly solemnly observed. We were treated to a final and magisterial bit of Bach (the C minor prelude and fugue BWV 546) from the organist before spilling out into a darkened Parliament Square with our now strangely misshapen candles. Rushing for the last train, Lynn and I only had a few seconds to chat to Diana Birch and our other friends from National who we met on the way out, and we probably paid the light tower Spectra less attention than it deserved.
It was an honour to attend this ceremony on behalf of the WI, and an occasion I shall have cause to remember for many years to come. I am really grateful for yet another wonderful experience that would never have come my way if I had not become so involved with the WI.
NFWI Vice Chairs Lynne Stubbings and Diana Birch, and Head of Public Affairs Rachel Barber, attended the service, on behalf of the NFWI.