As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

An Ordinary Soldier (November 2019)

During half-term I went to Salzburg in order to indulge in a few of my favourite things, one of which, against all literary precedent, turned out to be Salzburg’s military museum. To those of you who were hoping for an assembly littered with roses, kittens, and blue satin sashes, all I can say is that one evening I had a plateful of schnitzel with noodles, and very nice it was too.

Salzburg military museum is located in Salzburg castle – an impressive fortification that has stood for over 900 years and has never been taken by force. The parenthetical comment that has to follow such a bold and impressive statement is that when Napoleon came by in 1803 the fortress surrendered without a fight. Salzburg was home to a regiment in the Imperial army and the museum represents an enormous level of pride in the brave and mighty warriors of this regiment. One room is dedicated to the regiment’s march – a stirring piece of music that blares out at you as you examine the uniform, the medals, the maps of 1914 which is when the march was composed. The Austro-Hungarian empire (of which Salzburg was part) went into the war expecting to underline its dominance of Southeastern Europe and, particularly, to put Serbia in its place. This plan started to go wrong when Russia backed its ally, Serbia, and declared war on Austria. The Salzburg regiment marched into Russia – Western Ukraine, actually – a success that inspired their jaunty march, but which was short lived. According to the museum, the regiment was halted because the enemy, outrageously, had guns. Never mind, they were sent to the southern borders – with Italy – where they lost again, this time because it was winter and there wasn’t enough food. Finally there was a mountain campaign in the southern Tyrol (still against Italy – Diplomacy players will know that Austria should avoid fighting both Italy and Russia at the same time). This went badly because not only did the enemy still have guns, not only was there still not enough food, but also the weather was bad and there were avalanches. World War 1 did not go as well as had been hoped.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy has one of his characters say “If no-one fought except on his own conviction there would be no wars.” If nobody went to fight except to defend their homes there would be no fighting. Except the current events in Kurdistan suggest that there would – that we can’t always make peace by walking away – because there will, to pick up on Miss Taylor’s assembly, always be jerks and so there will always be a need for good people to stand up to them, to defend those who can’t defend themselves.

November is the season of remembrance – focused on 11th, the anniversary of the end of the first world war – but what we are remembering is not the sweep of history, the politics, the strategy – what we are remembering, or rather, who we are remembering is those who went to war – the soldiers who risked or lost their lives to stand up to the jerks. It’s their courage, their sacrifice, their loss that we recall.

A soldier’s story from this century: In May 2004, Johnson Beharry was an ordinary soldier - a private in a tank regiment driving a Warrior armoured vehicle. One morning his tank was ordered to rescue a foot-patrol that had been ambushed. As his tank passed a roundabout, they became aware that the road to the front was empty of all civilians and traffic - an indicator of a potential ambush. The commander ordered the vehicle to halt, so that he could assess the situation. The vehicle was then immediately hit by multiple rocket-propelled grenades. As a result of this ferocious initial volley of fire, both the platoon commander and the vehicle's gunner were incapacitated by concussion and other wounds, and a number of the soldiers in the rear of the vehicle were also wounded. Due to damage sustained in the blast to the vehicle's radio systems, Private Beharry had no means of communication with either his turret crew or any other tanks. He did not know if his commander or crewmen were still alive, or how serious their injuries may be. As he assessed the situation, the vehicle was hit again. Further damage to the warrior from these explosions caused it to catch fire and fill rapidly with thick, noxious smoke. Beharry opened the armoured hatch cover to clear his view. He assessed that his best course of action to save the lives of his crew was to push through, out of the ambush. He drove his tank directly through the barricade, not knowing if there were mines hidden beneath to rip the tank apart. Another rocket-propelled grenade wrenched the hatch out of his grip, and destroyed the periscope, so he was forced to drive the vehicle through the remainder of the ambushed route, some 1500m long, with his hatch opened up and his head exposed to enemy fire, all the time with no communications with any other vehicle. Unsurprisingly he was hit by a bullet that penetrated his helmet.

Despite this harrowing weight of incoming fire Beharry continued to push through the ambush, still leading a group of five armoured vehicles. Once he had brought his vehicle to a halt beyond the ambush but still under fire he climbed onto the turret of the still-burning vehicle and, seemingly oblivious to the incoming bullets, manhandled his wounded commander out of the turret, off the vehicle and to the safety of a nearby warrior. He then returned once again and mounted the exposed turret to lift out the vehicle's gunner and move him to a position of safety. Exposing himself yet again to enemy fire he returned to the rear of the burning vehicle to lead the disorientated and shocked dismounts and casualties to safety.

For this, Johnson Beharry received the Victoria Cross – the highest award for gallantry. He is one of only five living holders of the award. He was seriously injured the next month when, in another act of bravery, shrapnel from an armoured grenade entered his brain. He has struggled to recover, physically and mentally and in 2008 attempted suicide by wrapping his car around a lamppost. He is now a national hero, doing better, I think, still in the army, serving in London, and he has set up a charity to support ex-servicemen and to reduce gang culture among young people. He is a remarkable man – for an ordinary soldier.

At the remembrance service next week, Diogo will lay a wreath on the grave of the unknown warrior – a soldier who died in the first world war. Not a general, not a politician, just an ordinary soldier – one of the many whose remains could not be identified when they were pulled out of the mud of the Western Front. He may have been brave like Johnson Beharry. He may have been terrified. We don’t know, he was chosen randomly to represent all the dead of that awful war. I think of him as both courageous and terrified: afraid of dying, afraid of being injured but determined not to let his mates down. We will pause to remember him, and the millions of others whose sacrifices have, in one way or another, given us the chances we have today. We will pause to remember our past, the work we have done, the successes we have had that have allowed us to get where we are. And we will pause to commit to a better future, to a world in which jerks don’t go to war and so there’s no need for the rest of us to either.

In the first world war 1.2 million Austro-Hungarians and a quarter of a million Serbians died. The empire was dismantled and Austria was left with about a quarter of the land it had before the war. It seems strange therefore that the regiment should be so enthusiastically remembered – and, in fact, in the last room there is a video of interviews with modern Austrians on their national day celebrations, asking if we should remember the Imperial Army, some saying yes, some saying it’s irrelevant, some just enjoying the lemonade. And on the wall, it says this: Tradition Bewahren; Ehre Ihr Opfer; Erkenne die Ursachen; Vor Allem- Friede; Nie Wiede; Daraus Lernen. Preserve your traditions; honour their sacrifice; recognize the causes; before all peace; never again; lessons learned.

We remember, not because of the mighty successes, the glorious marches, the imperial nonsense – but because of the individuals who stood in a hard place, who died, or lived, who showed courage, or didn’t and because of whose sacrifice we can hope for peace. And so, maybe, the people of Salzburg are right to be proud, right to remember, right to celebrate their past, because they recognise it for the imperial nonsense it is, and because they are committed to learn from those mistakes.

Our remembrance service on 11th November is a solemn and serious affair. At its heart it is the whole school community standing before that unknown warrior and committing to learn the lessons. It takes place within the structure of an Abbey service which is a Christian one but that key moment of remembrance and commitment is not religion – it’s scholarly response. And it, more than doorbells, sleighbells or wild geese, is one of my favourite things: a moment when we recognise our privileges, and accept the responsibilities that come with them.