This noble College

Heading: 'We will remember them'

Alan Main reflects on the dignified simplicity of Aberdeen's own tribute to its fallen.

pic: The Merson Memorial Window
Details of the Merson Memorial Window in the Antechapel.
Designed by William Wilson and dedicated to Captain William Murison Smith Merson of the Gordon Highlanders who was killed in France in 1916, it combines the regimental badge of the Gordon Highlands with the arms of the University of Aberdeen.
At this time when we are celebrating the five hundred year history of King's College Chapel it would be easy to neglect that part of it, the Antechapel, which is the University's War Memorial. In recent years seemingly ever increasing numbers of brides process through it to their wedding. At every service of worship the congregation enters and leave through it. How many occasional visitors, one wonders, pause to spare a thought for the 524 sons of Aberdeen University, who are there commemorated on the panelling around the walls?
It was shortly after the First World War that the Senatus decided to reconstruct the Antechapel to provide a dignified and fitting memorial to the 342 graduates, students and alumni who had made the supreme sacrifice, the dedication conducted on Armistice Sunday 1928 by the Principal, Sir George Adam Smith. The names of the fallen had already been published in the University's Roll of Service in 1921 but here, around the walls, were now permanently inscribed "as before God" the names of the men of the four nations of the University, without title or rank.

The inscription, in Latin, which runs all along the top of the panelling, is the famous and so appropriate passage at the end of the eleventh and beginning of the twelfth chapters of the Letter to the Hebrews. "They through faith conquered kingdoms, exercised justice, quenched the force of fire. Out of weakness they grew strong, they became powerful in war, they routed the armies of foreigners. Therefore, let us also, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses placed over us, lay aside every encumbrance and the sin that presses around us, and run with steadfastness the race that lies before us."

On that day, seventy-two years ago, it is recorded that Sir George and Lady Adam Smith wore with pride the medals of their own sons who had fallen in the conflict.

Who would have thought that, only twenty-four years later, on Remembrance Sunday of 1952, there would be a second great gathering in King's, where the War Memorial, now extended, would be freshly dedicated; and the preacher on that occasion, the Rev Dr William Neil, in his sermon said: "we have added these names (sons, husbands, fathers, brothers) to those of the sons of the University who died in the First World War, the new and the old bound together in a comradeship of service and sacrifice - Just Ordinary Men." Prophetically, he went on to remark, "perhaps in the first flush of victory we forgot the timely warnings we had had, that the peace would be much more difficult to win than the war." And, ever since, each Remembrance Sunday, the Last Post, the Flowers of the Forest, and the Reveille echo the call to us, who come after, to honour and fresh remembrance.

Having served as a Chaplain to the University for ten years, and in the Armed Forces as a Padre for twenty, this special act of worship has a particular poignancy and significance for me; but not only for me, but for so many over the years, the young and the old bound together in a bond of tribute, thankfulness and rededication; and, to all who would dismiss the continuing need to have such remembrance, let me simply quote Dr Neil, at the end of his sermon in 1952. "Have the dead died in vain? Is all the talk of the glory of sacrifice and devotion to ideals no more than orators' froth? The answer to that is a thousand times - NO! No matter how unworthy the world may be of their sacrifice... no act of selfless sacrifice is ever in vain in the sight of God."

When you are next in the vicinity of the Chapel, do take a moment to pause, to reflect and to be thankful.

Pic: Book of Remembrance, King's College Chapel
Very Rev Professor Alan Main is a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and Master of Christ's College, Aberdeen.

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