12 November 2017
On Sunday 12 November, Joss Bucanan delivered the below address paying tribute to his Uncle, Mr Arthur Buchanan (Grenville/Walpole 37), who lost his life in World War Two. Jonathon Hall (Bruce 79) laid the Old Stoic Wreath during the service.
"My uncle was called Arthur. He was born in 1919 and along with his two brothers he was here at Stowe in the 1930s, first in Grenville House and then for his final years in the new Walpole House where his elder brother, my father, was the first ever Head of House. Arthur was not particularly academic but he was a good sportsman and in particular he was a talented golfer. He was very fortunate as even in those days Stowe had its own golf course, even if it was quite rudimentary, and that’s where he spent as much time as he could. When it then came to university those were simpler times and my grandfather simply made a phone call. Like his father before him and both of his brothers Arthur was offered a place at Trinity College, Cambridge – without any of the inconvenience of an entrance test or interview. Technically, he studied Economics, but once again he was much more interested in his sport and he was extremely proud to be awarded a Blue for representing the university at golf.
But by the end of his second year at Cambridge it was the summer of 1939 and the start of the Second World War. Arthur did not hesitate and like all of his contemporaries he put his studies to one side and he volunteered to join the armed forces. Once again he followed in his father’s and brothers’ footsteps and he gained a commission in the Grenadier Guards. He became a Second Lieutenant.
It is one of the often forgotten facts of military life, however, that much of it is extremely dull. An enormous amount of time is spent training, an enormous amount of time is spent travelling and an enormous amount of time is spent simply waiting, and it is only on the rarest of occasions that one actually engages the enemy and sees action. In Arthur’s case, he spent the whole of those first two critical years of the War, 1940 and 1941, training. During the fall of France, the retreat from Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the start of the Pacific War, Arthur was either in England or in Scotland training with the Grenadiers’ newly formed 6th Battalion. It was not until June 1942 that he and his comrades finally received the order to go abroad when the battalion was ordered to North Africa to reinforce General Montgomery’s British Eighth Army.
But to get from England to Egypt, where the Eighth Army was at that point, was no easy task in 1942. The resources were not available to send such a large body of men and their equipment by air and with Italy also in the War it was far too dangerous to travel by ship through the Mediterranean. So in June the battalion embarked at Liverpool for the long route around the Cape of Good Hope. Including a stop of 3 weeks in South Africa, the journey to the Port of Suez on the Red Sea took no less than 10 weeks. Once in the Middle East the battalion then spent a further 4 months in Syria acclimatising and completing their training. And it was not until March 1943 that they finally completed the last leg of their journey and joined up with the Eighth Army which by this stage was approaching Tunisia. It had pursued Rommel’s Africa Corps 1,000 miles westwards across the desert following the great victory at El Alamein 4 months earlier.
Thus 3½ years after he had originally joined up and 18 months after the formation of his battalion Arthur finally saw action for the first time. On the night of the 16th March 1943 his battalion was ordered to take part in an attack on the Mareth Line, a series of fortifications held by the enemy near to the modern day border between Libya and Tunisia.
At 9 o’clock that evening Arthur advanced in his armoured personnel carrier and successfully crossed the first of the minefields that lay in front of the enemy’s defences. He reconnoitred the position of the enemy and then returned to his own lines in order to collect his company’s anti-tank guns. Three hours later at midnight, he entered the minefield for a second time. It was at this point that his luck ran out; his vehicle hit a mine and overturned and as he and his companions lay there in no-man’s land they were subject to incoming mortar fire. Arthur was hit, and – so the family was told - he was killed instantly.
During the course of that one night, the 16th/17th March 1943, the first night that the battalion had ever engaged with the enemy, 77 men of the battalion were killed, 93 were wounded and 109 were taken prisoner. It was an unmitigated disaster and the battalion never saw active service again during the whole course of the War.
My uncle was not a hero. He was not a Battle of Britain pilot or a commander in the Battle of the Atlantic. He didn’t win any awards for bravery or even hold high rank. Instead, in many ways his death and the death of his comrades could be considered a senseless loss of life. After so much time spent preparing for battle they had been cut down on the very first occasion that they had seen action. The military advantages of that night were negligible.
But to me, Arthur could not be a greater hero. Without ordinary men like him and the 76 other soldiers who lost their lives that night, or the 269 other Old Stoics who also gave their lives during the course of the Second World War; without those ordinary men who volunteered to serve their country, who followed orders and who in the end were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice; without them we could never have won the War, we could never have defeated fascism, and we – all of us in Chapel this morning – would not enjoy the freedoms that we do today.
A few years ago I went to Tunisia to visit Arthur’s grave. The website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission makes it very easy to track down the location of such graves and it turned out that Arthur had been buried in a cemetery in the southern Tunisian town of Sfax. Having taken the train from Tunis to Sfax I then hired a taxi to go out to the cemetery. I did wonder whether my journey was a wild goose chase and whether after so much effort I’d actually be able to find the grave, but the moment I stepped out of the taxi I immediately saw that the first two long rows of gravestones all bore the familiar regimental insignia of the Grenadier Guards. Those 77 men who had trained together, who had travelled together, who had fought together and who had died together had also been buried together. Arthur was in the second row two from the end.
My father also fought in the North African Campaign - albeit with the British First Army advancing from the West with the Americans – and when he heard that his brother had been killed he was given compassionate leave to go and see Arthur’s temporary grave. Somehow he had made his peace at that point and he never returned to visit the permanent grave and indeed I was the first member of the family ever to see it. I never quite understood this and I was unsure, therefore, how my father would react to my visit, but when I showed him my photos he was simply fascinated. It had been a close-knit regiment and he’d known all those young officers who had been killed that night. He went down the row of gravestones one by one: he went out with my sister, he was at prep school with me, he was a very good golfer. All of a sudden those men were no longer just names: they became individual characters once more.
On some of the gravestones relatives had asked for a few words to be added. Maybe a quote from the bible or a short reference to loved ones left behind. There was no such inscription on Arthur’s gravestone. If I understand correctly my grandmother had had a breakdown when she had heard that her son had been killed and she and my grandfather were in no fit state to decide on any wording. But just along from Arthur on one of the other gravestones it simply said: “The love that never falters”. It is, of course, a line from the hymn we sang just a few moment ago: “I vow to thee, my country”.
The hymn is often criticised today for being too jingoistic, too nationalistic and the sentiment of some of its words leaves us feeling uncomfortable. But it is worth remembering its origins. It was written in 1918 by Cecil Spring Rice, the British Ambassador in Washington, during the First World War. It was his response to the horrors of that war and the one million British soldiers who had lost their lives in the conflict. It was his way of commemorating their sacrifice.
And certainly for me whenever we sing the hymn I remember Arthur, the uncle I never knew, and I remember all those others who also gave their lives in both the First World War and the Second World War – and who still give their lives today - in defence of our freedoms."
“For our tomorrows, they gave their todays.”