At the start of the service on Sunday 13 November, just before keeping the silence, we read this account of an Islington soldier's Battle of the Somme in 1916.
100 years ago, in a trench on the British lines of the Somme, Sergeant Hugh Victor Hember made final preparations to go over the top.
Far from home, he thought of his family in Islington. He had joined the London Rifle Brigade with many local pals. They knew the streets that we know. They had walked down the Holloway Road and Upper Street all their lives. They had probably been in this church. And even as Hugh and his comrades suffered the wretchedness of the trenches - he wrote in his diary about the mice eating through his trousers, even as he wore them - they thought of Islington.
The Somme was supposed to be the great turning point in 1916. A major assault on heavily fortified German defences which would lead to a conclusive allied victory. One last great push.
For seven days, hundreds of thousands of shells were fired from behind the British lines, over the heads of Hugh Hember and the London Rifles. It was a week of terrible onslaught, to ‘soften up’ the enemy. It was supposed to enable the infantry to walk across no man’s land to an easy victory, like walking down Roseberry Avenue to a Saturday night in town.
Hugh Hember was one of 100,000 soldiers dressed and ready under the dark night sky. They had woken in the early hours of the morning and made themselves ready to go over the top. When the whistles blew, they climbed the ladders and went forward, some of them singing.
By the end of that first day of the Battle of the Somme, 19,240 British soldiers died. About one every five seconds. A total of three square miles had been gained. The Battle wasn’t a decisive breakthrough for a quick peace. It was bogged down within minutes and lasted for five months.
Back in Islington, the letters from Hugh Hember stopped arriving at the family home. It took ten months to confirm that he had died on that first awful day. He is commemorated at the Thiepval Cemetery with a simple stone cross.
Today we remember Hugh Hember. We remember those who died with him as comrades at the Somme. We remember the German soldiers and all whose lives ended with sacrifice. We remember all the victims of all wars, including the wars of today, including civilians. We remember the awful cost of war and the cheap promises of quick victories. And we resolve to strive for peace.
Before the act of remembrance, a quote from one of Hugh Hember’s letters home to Islington: “One wonders that men can be such utter fools as to know of no other way of settling their disputes except by causing such destruction.”