Remembrance Day Address

Sunday 10 November 2019

By OG Major (retired) Toby Rider

Thank you for asking me here to address you. Today is a day that unites people, whatever their nationality, their politics, their religion or their beliefs. It is an honour to be asked to speak on such an important day. To do so in a place and with people that I hold so dear, is a privilege.

When I last addressed Gordonstoun on Remembrance Day, it was 2009, the year that Harry Patch died. Harry had died at the age of 111 years old. He had died peacefully of natural causes, and in doing so, Harry ended an era that we associate so strongly with today. Harry was the last fighting Tommy. He was the last surviving Soldier who fought in the trenches of World War 1.

I asked then whether it was time to stop remembering and to move on. I hoped not. I asked that whatever you believed, to think of the mother, father, son, daughter, husband or wife that was left behind. And I hope you did, because Harry did not take conflict to his grave. In fact, since I gave that address there have been many conflicts across the word. Since 2009, I myself have served in a conflict. I have seen death that has left those very families with a huge void which they will live with all their life.

Every day we are faced with questions over which we will disagree on the right answer. Many are trivial, some important and some are the principal thing in our lives. These questions lead to differing opinions on who is right and who is wrong. And when these differing opinions cannot be resolved, all too often they lead to conflict.

Today is about taking time to remember those that have made the ultimate sacrifice in these conflicts. When we do this, we will tend to focus on our own side, we see it through the prism which we are told the story. We tend to not think about why they made the sacrifice.

Be careful if you do think about it. Very quickly you will struggle to understand why these ordinary people go to extraordinary lengths to fight someone they have never met before.

But over this period of remembrance, I want you to ask that question. Not why we have conflict, but why people do extraordinary things against all logic?

So why do they? It is easy to imagine soldiers are brutal and aggressive in order to do what they do. But I have rarely found this to be the case. Think of a soldier or veteran you know – were they brutal, aggressive? So why do they do it? The next logical explanation is through a sense of duty that drives them to serve. There is no doubt that this exists, but to me this is something they gain and is reinforced over their time in service, not something that inherently sits within them.

I believe it to be through the direct opposite of conflict that they put themselves at great risk for others. It is through respect, love and compassion for their fellow man or woman. Soldiers rarely fight for a cause. They do it for the person by their side.

Soldiers love their comrades. I don’t use that word lightly. They will do anything for them as if they were a favourite brother or sister.

I remember a very strange feeling on returning from the 2nd Gulf War. I woke the next day to drive north to see Lucy, now my wife, for the first time in months. But in my gut, I wanted to see my men. I missed them. I missed the security of them being there, and I wanted to know they were OK. I wanted to know they would look after me and each other. I felt lost. At that moment, and in all the months we were together, I know I would have done anything for them. I loved them!

Soldiers conduct acts of bravery that lead to the ultimate sacrifice because by doing so they know they will protect their fellow soldiers. Think about that. They will give their own life for the others that are there with them. Where is the logic in that? But how often in life has love overridden what you consider to be sensible or logical?

If you spend time looking at the world today, you will see the uncertain times we are in. We face division and conflict. Commentators speak seriously about a war involving the world’s super powers. There are currently proxy wars being fought all over the world on behalf of these super powers. And, in all this division, unfortunately, it is only a matter of time before diplomacy stalls and the hard power of force is used. When this happens, a group of young men and women who have never faced real danger, will be asked to put themselves at huge risk for us. But they will not worry, they will not hesitate, they will go forward and do what is needed of them. They will look to their left and to their right and they will take great risks to protect the person next to them. A person who they may hardly know. They will show compassion, they will love their fellow soldiers like family and, fortunately just occasionally, one of them will do something extraordinary to save the others. They may succeed, but they may also die trying. They will know this could happen, but still they will not hesitate.

Here at Gordonstoun you live a motto that asks you to find more from within yourself. You are pushed to your perceived limits and then shown you can go further. Sometimes this will challenge your intellect, your strength, perhaps your beliefs. Often though, it will challenge the very spirit within you. This is the hardest one to overcome. It is who you are and seems very difficult to change.

When you are faced with this challenge, don’t always go for the stronger, more aggressive approach. Think about why you are doing something. Think about the other people you could be helping. Think about those you love. Because when you need to go further, it is so much easier if you are motivated by love and compassion.

I was raised with that ethos. And I have had to find more inside me on many occasions as I face challenges and danger. I have had to question whether the person I am has what it takes. But I have looked left, looked right, and it is the love and compassion for others that has driven me forward. The feeling of wanting to be the best I can, not wanting to let others down.

I was so pleased to read recently of the ‘Learning to Listen’ event you had here. How you were learning about the difference between winning and understanding the other’s point of view. Always try to understand not what you see, but why you see it. Understanding why others are the way they are is a great skill that will help you to be a compassionate person.

As you grapple with the challenges ahead of you, I ask you all to stop and think about what is really important. Is it the opinion of the other person? Or is it the love and compassion that binds us all together. We must respect others, even where their views are so opposed to our own. We must work with kindness and love.

Not aggression. Not hatred. Not a determination to beat others.

Whatever challenge you are facing, think of those who have served and sacrificed. If they can do so with love and compassion in the most trying of circumstances, then we all can.

Thank you.