The famous poem, For the Fallen, by Laurence Binyon, pays tribute to all of the casualties of war. It plays an important role in the thousands of services that take place on Remembrance Sunday each year. The poem, written during World War I, is well-known for its most famous lines, known as the Ode of Remembrance.
The legendary fourth verse will be spoken at the Remembrance Sunday commemorative services taking place across the nation on 11th November, when there will also be a two-minute silence at 11am to reflect on those brave men and women who lost their lives defending our freedom.
People across the nation know the poignant words well: “They shall grow not 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.”
Binyon was 45 years old at the outbreak of World War I and was considered too old to enlist in the Armed Forces, so instead, he worked for the Red Cross as a medical orderly. The Lancaster-born poet and scholar, a clergyman’s son, had completed his education at Trinity College, Oxford, where he read Classics.
After graduating in 1893, he started work looking after the Department of Printed Books of the British Museum. He married his fiancée, Cicely Powell, a historian, in 1904 and they went on to have three daughters. At the outbreak of what was then known as the Great War, Binyon and his family lived in London.
He lost a number of close friends and his brother-in-law in the war and wrote his famous poem, For the Fallen, after the Battle of Mons on 23rd August and the Battle of the Marne, between 5th and 9th September, on the Western Front.
The battles were some of the first in the early phase of the war, which started on 28th July 1914. The poem paid tribute to the members of the British Expeditionary Force who had died in their first encounters with the German Army in the summer and autumn of 1914.
After the war, Binyon revealed he had written For the Fallen while sitting on a clifftop in Cornwall, near Pentire Point. A stone plaque was erected in 2001, inscribed with the words, “For the Fallen, composed on these cliffs, 1914.”
Public emotions were running high following the recent Battle of Marne when his poem was published in The Times newspaper in September 1914. People immediately took it to heart and its fourth verse later became a tribute to all the casualties of war, regardless of their nationality.
Sir Edward Elgar set For the Fallen to music in The Spirit of England, an orchestral and choral work composed between 1915 and 1917. It was adopted by the Royal British Legion after the war and was read at their Remembrance Sunday services – a tradition that has continued to this day, 100 years after the end of World War I.
Although the fourth verse is the most familiar one that almost everyone knows, the other verses were equally poignant, reminding us that these young men were once enjoying life with their friends and family, before they were cruelly cut down.
Binyon reminds us, “They mingle not with their laughing comrades again, they sit no more at familiar tables of home,” and laments, “They went with songs to the battle, they were young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.”
After being told he was too old to join the Armed Forces, Binyon worked as a volunteer for the Red Cross in military hospitals in France, including Hôpital Temporaire d’Arc-en-Barrois, in Haute-Marne.
As a hospital orderly, he saw first-hand the horrors of war, caring for the wounded soldiers who had been taken from the Verdun battlefield. He wrote about his experiences in For Dauntless France, a factual book published in 1918.
It detailed Britain’s efforts during and after the war, including not only the work of the Red Cross but also the contribution of the English Canteens and the various enterprises launched to start rebuilding the regions devastated by the conflict.
In the book, Binyon described his first impression of the military hospitals, stating, “Everything in the hospital seemed to be admirably ordered. Things were done briskly and one had an impression of cheerful animation, both among the staff and the patients. The English nurses lodge in chalets near the building. Orderlies were supplied by the French and French girls gave their services in mending clothes and looking after the linen.”
He described how the wards were “pleasant and sunny”, some with as many as 60 beds crammed in. He said the X-ray room led directly to the operating theatre so that there was enough light from the X-ray machine to carry out emergency operations after dark when necessary.
Apart from the book, Binyon also wrote additional poems, Fetching the Wounded and The Distant Guns, inspired by his voluntary service at the hospitals.
The poet returned to working for the British Museum after the war and continued to write poems and non-fiction books. During World War Two, he wrote a moving poem called The Burning of the Leaves, about the horrors of the London Blitz, which many people considered a masterpiece.
As people across the nation gather at Remembrance services on Sunday 11th November to pay tribute to those who have lost their lives in conflict, The Cornwall SEO Co joins with them in remembering the sacrifices of the brave men and women who fought to the end for the freedom of future generations.