This evening – Armistice Eve – Ben Fleetwood Smyth (no relation) and Hugh Brunt will be putting on their annual British Art Music Series concert: this year, in aid of St Paul’s, Knightsbridge.
Narrated by Judith Paris, and interspersed with Victorian and Edwardian music from the BAM Consort and the BAM Ensemble, the event will tell the story of one London community’s life, both at home and abroad, across the full span of the First World War, focussing on extracts from the parish magazines of the time, read by the current vicar, Fr Alan Gyle, and by yours truly.
The Rev Wilfrid Hannay Gibbins is my guy: a St Paul’s assistant clergyman who spent a year or so after the outbreak of hostilities as the chaplain of HMS Tiger, before being invalided out on the grounds of ‘an old illness’.
Gibbins (by his own hand) is a somewhat Golding-esque character. He can seem a little foolish when mistaking ‘excitements dodging submarines’ for what is in fact a school of porpoises, and his frequent (and unembarrassed) requests for parishioners to kit him out with the garb for each liturgical season – at their own expense, presumably – might strike the 21st century sensibility as something less than a front-rank priority in wartime. (At one point he actually suggests that somebody donate him a piano.)
But his dozen or so letters – despatched from ‘Anywhere’, ‘Prowling’, ‘The Cathedral Ship’ (he was terribly pleased with the folderol of official visits) and so on – are full of good Royal Naval trivia, such as the habit of saluting the quarter-deck (per se, when formerly what the sailors were saluting was the crucifix erected on it...). And if he appears to have perceived the war as first and foremost an opportunity for recruiting souls, then they do seem to have come to him willingly enough. He celebrated no fewer than five services one Christmas morning, on various decks.
His rather unquestioning attitude to the war itself, not surprisingly, begins to lose its fervour once the Tiger is attacked, in early 1915, by four German battle-cruisers, and he has stood among the dead and the dying. He even considers the horrors on board the enemy vessels. (There is very little information about the engagement itself: Gibbins, amongst other things, was also the ship’s censor.)
It would be wrong to suggest that he was generally unfeeling, though. As the former head of the St Paul’s school cadets – incorporated into the Territorial forces by the time of Gibbins’ sea-borne correspondence – he is assiduous in keeping tabs on the progress of his former charges. And he gives frequent thanks for the offerings of clothing, money, and prayer that continue to pour forth from the parish, on behalf of the nation’s seamen.
Enemy voices are, of course, few and far between, though while on sick-leave Gibbins finds time to record an absolutely corking anecdote in which a captured German officer mistakes the one o’clock gun at Edinburgh for the beginning of the long-awaited air-raid: ‘Ah! ze Zeppelin, it has arrived!’
Back in Knightsbridge, life continues, with reports of successful Sunday school outings (‘next year only ONE child will be permitted to fall into the sea with all of his/her clothes on’), sports fixtures, and reminders to pay one’s parish mag subscriptions in a timely fashion. The editor informs readers that ‘Mrs Boyd will not be At Home at the Vicarage on Monday afternoons in January.’
But Gibbins’ persistent complaint that those at home seem unaware of the very existence of the war doesn’t hold much water. The parish notes record everything from the stitching of sand-bags to the schedule of sermons: ‘March 14th, Cowardice.’ And they are full of pride (most of it the good kind) for their brave sons – volunteers all, at this stage – and front-line poems from those still in any fit state, physical or emotional, to be writing them.
A line reproduced from the Service for Those at Sea (which ‘ought to be used by every one’) includes the sobering but perhaps surprisingly enlightened nota bene, ‘Thou givest not alway the battle to the strong...’ It is not long before the monthly issues record discussions of how to commemorate the fallen.
Several of the church’s current parishioners will be in attendance on Monday whose ancestors feature in the St Paul’s Book of Remembrance. At least one will be bringing the family scrapbook.
The concert is tonight at 7.30pm at St Paul's, Knightsbridge, SW1X. Tickets are £20 on the door and includes a glass of wine. To reserve please call 020 7201 9999 or email email@example.com
A S H Smyth is a freelance writer and singer. He was a trooper in the Honourable Artillery Company, and served in Afghanistan in 2013