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They Did Not Die in Vain

Issue date: 
Sunday, 14 September 1958
Viscount Cobham, GCMG, TD

The raising and opening of a new War Memorial hall is an occasion upon which we can, for a few minutes, compose ourselves for some quiet and purposeful reflection. The raising of this large sum - 80,000 has already been given by the people of Wanganui, and 30,000 more will be raised before the building is finished - is in itself a massive achievement and one of which the citizens of this fine city have reason to be proud.

But this hall will stand for something that no money can ever buy, and that is the lives of your sons and husbands who died in the fight for freedom at the side of their English and American brothers in many foreign fields.

Twice in my lifetime - I am not yet 50 - have England and her loyal Empire fought tyranny; twice in a quarter of a century have the youth of our Commonwealth perished in their hundreds of thousands. We might well imagine that such a sacrifice might have brought a respite for democracy, but, alas, the road still winds uphill. Another generation has passed through the Valley of the Shadow, and mankind is not yet in sight of the level plain of peace.

There are two questions that will torment us for many years to come. We have heard the phrases so often that perhaps they not longer mean as much to us as they should. And they are: "Have they died in vain?" "Has the world this time been made safe for democracy?" Let us for a few moments examine those two searching questions, for everything depends upon them.

No, they did not die in vain - and they gave everything that they had to give. But one thing they could not give, and that was their own virtue and unselfishness to those who followed them.

Democracy calls for qualities of no baser metal in time of peace than in time of war, and today in the great nations of the West we can see only too clearly those signs of decadence which unless they are soon checked will lead to the fall of democracy, not at the hands of any foreign conqueror but from the decay of its own foundations. For a civilised nation is founded upon a tradition of service, and without that tradition it will inevitably perish.

Sir Arthur Bryant stated the case far better than I can when he wrote:

"When a century ago, Disraeli said that a nation was made by its institutions and that if you destroy these you end by destroying the nation itself, he was expressing a profound truth. It is comparatively easy to destroy the structure of an ancient free society, but it is very difficult to create a new one. 'Nations,' said Disraeli, 'must either be governed by force or through traditional influences.' If we wish to preserve freedom, without which no worthwhile social habitation for man can ever be made, for every outworn institution we discard, we must set up another in its place equally capable of producing citizens who, out of devotion and loyalty, will voluntarily subordinate their selfish wills to the needs of society. 'In the realm of the spirit,' wrote Charles Douie, 'that which counts is not what a man gets but what he gives.'"

Here then is the root of the matter: What is it that makes men give everything in time of war and yet unwilling to make personal sacrifices in so-called time of peace? Is it, as Sir Arthur Bryant suggests, because the people have forgotten how to sing at their work and because that work has no meaning for them, no place in the scheme of human salvation? Or did Shaw get nearer the truth when he wrote, "We are so dangerously uneducated in citizenship that most of us assume we have an unlimited right to change our conduct the moment we have changed our minds."

Whatever the reason, it is abundantly clear that mankind has not yet reached that state of unselfishness wherein his own conscience is ready to replace the old restraints upon his conduct. I believe that we have rashly jettisoned discipline before self-discipline is ready to take its place.

Unless humanity is intrinsically decent, heaven help the world indeed. The old sanctions, religious and political, have lost their power both to control and to inspire. The fear of the Lord have given place to the fear of the nuclear bomb. But whereas the former used to condition men's actions through the open consciousness of original sin and the need for redemption, the latter merely inspires in them the primitive fear of physical destruction.

Patriotism does indeed include a man's willingness to lay down his life for his friends; but it should mean also unselfish service given to his country in time of peace. Desmond McCarthy described it as "those hidden laws by which, in any State, the private virtues of its citizens, their love of knowledge, the energy and disinterestedness of their civic life, their reverence for the past, their caution, their capacity for safely working free institutions, may be maintained and fostered."

And finally, let us do our best to recapture the lost graces of life, for it was those, above all else, that our young men died to preserve. They died to preserve, not a standard of living, but a way of life - traditions of justice, fair-play and decency, straight dealing and honest craftsmanship. It is life that changes and spoils and corrupts, not death. That is what Russell Lowell meant when he wrote those splendid lines on the fallen in the American Civil War and which head the M.C.C. War Memorial at Lord's: "Secure from change in their high-hearted ways."

Let us ponder these things, and remember them whenever we see this Memorial Hall. For we can best remember and honour the fallen by doing our best, each and every one of us, to implement in our everyday existence, those ideals in which they believed and for which they died.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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