The Commandant General’s Speech in Exeter Cathedral at the Eternal Voices concert on Saturday 20 November 2010
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Buster Howes and I have the great privilege of commanding the Royal Marines and of saying thank you to the many people who have made this remarkable evening possible.
As ever, one ... if not the star of the show is this sublime old Cathedral Church of St Peter – founded in 1050 ... An enduring, colossal, reassuring, presence in our very active military, operational lives. It marks our departures and celebrates our home-comings from across the globe. And on occasion watches over my Boys as they are carried carefully home, shoulder high, beneath the Union Flag ... or when – as tonight - we
celebrate their memory.
The tribal heart-land of the Corps is in the West Country. The vivid, red earth is deeply engrained in our uniforms. Six of the seven Commando Units of the Brigade, together with its Headquarters and the Centre of Amphibious Specialisation, are here. The crucible of the organisation – the Commando Training Centre is just up the road, on the Exe, at Lympstone, - where no opportunity is lost to go running in all that treacly, estuarine mud!
So Devon is our home and, like it or not, by dint of proximity, if not by blood, you too are part of the Corps Family ... We are your Marines.
Which is why your presence here and support, this evening, is so important.
The Boys … do care deeply that you - and the populace of Britain – care. That you are interested and want to understand what they do – particularly, currently in Afghanistan. They are sensitive to the knowledge that they are not just randomly ‘feasting with
panthers’ - engaged in some lethal but essentially irrelevant struggle, while a preoccupied nation watches the X-Factor on their televisions.
The Royal Marines pro rata have sustained two and a half times as many battlefield fatalities and injuries in Helmand province as any other organisation in Defence; principally because we have been committed to operations in Afghanistan more consistently than any other.
One month ago, 40 Commando, returned home to Taunton from their most recent tour, in Sangin - the most hostile district in the entire country. Twenty one of the Battle Group were killed and 92 were wounded. Those occupying certain outposts confronted a 95%
chance of encountering the enemy whenever they went out on patrol - and on average, they mounted 7 patrols per day. A Rifleman lived with a 1 in 5 chance of being killed or injured over the duration of his 6–month deployment.
Perhaps remarkably, they remain focused, resilient, clear in their purpose and undaunted. Proud of their long history and their Commando legacy, they – to a man – regard themselves as custodians of an heroic tradition and are bound by the brotherhood of a shared ideal and ordeal. They are as jaunty, mischievous, tough and keen to go out on ‘ops’ as ever they were …
And so to my ‘thank yous’; unsurprisingly, it’s quite a long list:
Thank you to:
The Dean of Exeter Cathedral – The Very Reverend Jonathan Meyrick - and the Chapter
Sir Trevor MacDonald – tonight’s compère and narrator
Thank you to Adam Gorb – the composer of Eternal Voices
And to Ben Kaye – the librettist
Thank you to Alison Kettlewell – the solo mezzo soprano in Eternal Voices
And to Guy Fenton – the solo treble – well done Guy!
And to the Exeter Festival Chorus and their conductor Nigel Perrin
And to the organising Committee from the Exeter Festival Chorus, especially the chairman Dr Alastair Logan, Rosalind Beetham and Val Arndt
I would also like to thank the many sponsors and donors whose generosity has underpinned this creative endeavour
And last but not least I would acknowledge:
The Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Commando Training Centre, Lympstone, augmented by musicians from the Royal Marines Band Collingwood - conducted by Lieutenant Colonel Nick Grace, the principal Director of music of the Royal Marines.
40 members of this Band will deploy to Afghanistan with the Brigade in April, as ambulance drivers, radio operators and transport coordinators.
This has been a stirring and poignant concert.
There are families of fallen Marines here in the audience tonight. I hope that this musical tribute to your sons, brothers and loved-ones – particularly Eternal Voices, which you have been so closely engaged with - will have helped in the long sense making process associated with your loss and may, in some small way, have salved your grief.
We, in uniform, well recognize the risks and precariousness of our profession and the essentially ephemeral and transitory nature of life. And in consequence, day to day, we try to live with energy and glee, to live on, with a fiercer intensity, on behalf of our lost comrades too …
‘How thin the cloth, how fine the thread
That cloaks the living from the dead;
How narrowly, from breath to breath,
We plait our rendezvous with death.
How swift the tenant flees the gate;
The landlord’s writ, come soon or late,
Foreclosing slum or stately hall,
Hard bailiffs at His beck and call.
How feather-light the feeble spark
That shields us from the greedy dark;
Un-jessed our souls like falcons fly!
How weak the lure, how wide the sky!’
Felix Dennis crystallizes the thought.
Henri Maria Remarque wrote of the power of voices on the Western Front in the First World War:
‘These voices, these quiet words, these footsteps in the trench behind me recall me at a bound from the terrible loneliness and fear of death by which I had been almost destroyed. They are more to me than life, those voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear, they are the strongest most comforting thing there is anywhere, they are the voices of my comrades.’
... ‘Eternal Voices’ ... Thank You.