Colonel Dobson delivers Remembrance Service Address
On Saturday morning, 11 November 2023, Colonel Oli Dobson MBE (late SCOTS) delivered a Remembrance Service Address to Pilgrims' boys and staff in the Winchester College Chapel.
"At 11 o’clock on the 11 Nov 1918, 105 years ago today, the artillery guns and rifles fell silent when a ceasefire had finally been agreed after four terrible years of bloody war. 11 million soldiers, sailors, and airmen and seven million civilians had lost their lives. This was the first Armistice Day.
20 years later the world was at war again. In the following six years a further 40 million people would lose their lives during WW2. Shortly after, the United Nations Charter was drawn up with the bold aim: “We the peoples of the United Nations are determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which has twice in our lifetime brought untold sorrow to mankind”. A noble aim, I am sure we would all agree with, yet almost immediately, new wars started and today, 70-odd years later, across the world with 22 wars and 21 conflicts ongoing, this bold aim might seem an unachievable objective. In all these battlegrounds, some of which you will be hearing about on the daily news and many you may never have heard of, military and civilian lives are being lost.
This sounds bleak and might well worry you. You may feel that humanity has learnt nothing and wonder what the good of Remembrance is, perhaps even be concerned that me standing here in uniform today glorifies war in a way you might disagree with. However, while every life lost to conflict since the great wars is a tragedy, the scale of personal and collective sacrifice during the two world wars was unlike anything we have ever seen before or since. My hope is that educating and reflecting on past wars has helped prevent them in some small way.
Some might worry that you, the younger generation, do not ‘remember enough’. That the enormity of this loss of life has been dulled by the passing of time – these horrendous events happened a lifetime ago – and that the numbers are too big to fully understand. When urged to remember these ‘heroes’ we may, encouraged by Hollywood and Call of Duty, give the World War generations superpowers of bravery, courage, humility, and selflessness. This makes it difficult for me, a serving soldier to relate to, never-mind you boys.
Having worked alongside young soldiers at home and in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan I personally believe those soldiers of old were no different to the soldiers of today or indeed you. They were young people with fears and hopes, strengths and weaknesses just like us. What I think sets them apart is their commitment to Duty and Sense of Service, brought about by their situation. The terms ‘duty’ and ‘sense of service’ may sound alien; you might think them not relevant to you. However, I think they are timeless, remaining important today and central to the ethos of a Pilgrims’ boy.
The definition of ‘duty’ is ‘a moral or legal obligation’. It was the legal obligation that made the soldiers of old go to war. Unlike me, those soldiers had little choice – it was their LEGAL obligation. But the thing that made them drag themselves and their heavy kit forward and give their best physical effort day after day when they were tired and hungry, was their MORAL obligation; they did it for what was right and each other. I think you can all relate to that. It is cold and wet, and you HAVE to go to football (that is the legal obligation) but HOW you commit to each tackle comes down to your moral obligation. Do you give your all to protect your goalkeeper from the opposition striker? It’s your choice.
Service can be simply defined as ‘helping’ but the term a Sense of Service is much broader, and I believe implies wanting to do the right thing, a willingness to contribute to the world around you and collaborate with others – in pursuit of a common purpose – the most extreme example being the avoidance of war. Right now, you are part of something larger than yourselves; your family, your tutor group, your set and your school. You enjoy privilege; economic, physical, and intellectual and with that comes a responsibility to be kind and to serve others; not just during a time of national crisis. The decisions you make each day impact on others; there are opportunities to serve all around us. Think about clearing the plates at lunch, a kind word to a friend, visiting the Alms Houses or singing carols for the Kingsgate residents – these are all for the benefit of others and whilst small, they directly echo the spirit of service that the soldiers carried with them into the battlefields during the two wars.
I am not seeking to devalue the bravery and courage displayed by those involved in the World Wars, and the many wars and conflicts since then. I know soldiers today, in the face of danger, experience great fear, and feel sure this was true for earlier generations. Recognising fear as the overwhelming emotion, something we can all relate to, perhaps more so than courage and bravery, I hope increases our understanding of the sacrifice made on our behalf, and that, despite the passing of time, we can be thankful. But that thankfulness must be accompanied by action; whether you end up working for the UN, in the city, or joining the Armed Forces, through our daily actions and deeds we can honour those that made the ultimate sacrifice.
If you struggle during the two minutes silence to be thankful to a long dead soldier but can feel concern for all those suffering in conflict today, do that. And if this can encourage you to reflect on how day-to-day you can live a life of duty with a sense of service, I think you would be doing those soldiers’ memory proud."
Colonel Oli Dobson MBE (SCOTS)