On the bravery of Private Godfrey—a Remembrance Sunday meditation

The cast of Dad's Army, Private Godfrey is on the left
READINGS: Ecclesiastes 9:17-18:

The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

Two passages by William Stafford from Every War Has Two Losers: William Stafford on Peace and War: William Stafford, Kim Robert Stafford, Milkweed Editions, 2003:

22 March 1968
The Fallacy of Retrospective Certainty:

People can select in the past certain events or persons and ascribe to them a crucial role in what eventuated. Sighting back past a chain of occurrences, one can say, “If someone had done this, then what followed could have been improved thus. Why didn't they act this way?” And sometimes the conclusion is, “Why don't I act that way, now?” “I would have killed Hitler, they say, meaning, “I believe in assassination under some circumstances.” A question: “What person would you assassinate now?” And if their principle is pushed to the further extreme they can be made remiss if they are not killing a succession of (retrospectively certain) troublemakers. But of course in actual life killing is not practiced or believed in by balanced people who realize the difficulties of judging consequences: it seems better to be civilized, to rely on group realizations, to cultivate order.

23 November 1967

A job: To help make it possible for others to feel they can use pleasant methods to save the world. To influence foreign governments. To spring off little pieces of insight and save them out of gross events and scenes.

—o0o—

In order to help us heed the words of wise Qoheleth we heard earlier found in his book, Ecclesiastes, I want to begin simply by recounting the story-line of a 1969 episode of the British TV Comedy, Dad’s Army. It was aired in on November 20th that year, just a few days after Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day.

A précis of the Dad's Army episode “Branded” by Jimmy Perry and David Croft (adapted from Wikipedia's précis)

If you prefer you can watch the half-hour episode on Youtube at this link or listen to the radio version at this link.

Following a exercise on the stealthy approach to an enemy soldier, Captain Mainwaring calls Sergeant Wilson into his office. He reveals he has received a letter from Private Godfrey, informing him that Godfrey wants to resign from the platoon. Given Godfrey's vital role in the platoon as the soldier who makes the tea, Mainwaring is unwilling to let him go and, naturally, asks him for an explanation. Godfrey tells him that his decision came about after a recent incident in which he found a mouse in his kitchen but was unable to kill it even though they were infested with them. Mainwaring fails to see what this has to do with Godfrey’s resignation until Godfrey says that it made him realise if he couldn’t kill a mouse he couldn’t kill a German. Godfrey then also reveals that in the First World War, he was a conscientious objector, a “conchie”.

Mainwaring orders Godfrey to go home. Wilson is tolerant and understanding of Godfrey's need to follow his conscience but Mainwaring is extremely angry at the thought of a man not wanting to fight and, assuming Godfrey to be a coward, makes up his mind to shame and humiliate him in front of the troops. With characteristic pompousness, he convenes a parade of the rest of the platoon to inform them of Godfrey's apparent cowardice, but his thunder is rather stolen by the arrival of the Air Raid Warden, Hodges, who wants to discuss an upcoming Civil Defence drill.

Once the platoon learns of Godfrey's past there begins an unpleasant process of ostracisation and, whilst many — including Corporal Jones and Privates Pike and Walker — are undecided about their response to Godfrey's decision Private Frazer is characteristically vocal in his condemnation of Godfrey's cowardice, and he has no hesitation in expressing his disgust to the other man's face. Mainwaring decides that Godfrey will remain in the unit until a replacement can be found.

The action then moves to the Civil Defence training drill in which Warden Hodges instructs the men on how to retrieve unconscious bodies (represented by sacks of straw) from burning buildings filled with smoke. Mainwaring is unimpressed by the amount of smoke in the building and, incautiously, adds extra rags to the stove which fills the building with far more smoke than is safe. Mainwaring and Godfrey are the last two men to go through the building and Mainwaring informs Godfrey that he has no intention of letting him use his ‘conchie tricks’ to get out of the exercise (not, of course, that Godfrey had any intention of trying to do this) and that he intends to follow Godfrey through the hut to make sure he completes the exercise.

The remainder of the platoon, having passed through the hut have all left the scene and, having gone through the hut himself, Godfrey waits alone for Mainwaring. When Mainwaring doesn’t appear, a very concerned  Godfrey bravely decides to re-enter the smoke-filled hut in order to save Mainwaring who has obviously been overcome by the smoke.

The action finally moves to the aged Godfrey’s home bedside as he recuperates from smoke inhalation. After the doctor leaves he is visited by the entire platoon who, by now, have somewhat got over their earlier distaste for him. As an extremely uncomfortable Mainwaring attempts to express his gratitude to Godfrey for saving his life he suddenly notices above the bed a photo of a much younger Godfrey in military uniform wearing the Military Medal — the equivalent of the Military Cross for non-officers and a medal of far higher rank than any of those held by the rest of the platoon. (Mainwaring, by the way, has no medals at all, because he only served in the Army of Occupation in France, "during the whole of 1919 — [saying] somebody had to clear up the mess.”) Mainwaring is utterly confused by this photograph. Godfrey then reveals that, although he refused to fight in the First World War, he did volunteer to join the Royal Army Medical Corps as a stretcher bearer. 

His sister, who is also by his bedside, explains that during the Battle of the Somme Godfrey was responsible for a tremendous act of heroism in rescuing several wounded soldiers from no man's land under heavy fire (which, with characteristic modesty, Godfrey immediately downplays). Suitably ashamed at their earlier treatment of him as a coward (although Frazer, typically, insists that he knew it would be the case all along) the platoon begin to apologise and, at Wilson's suggestion, Mainwaring has no hesitation in declaring Godfrey the platoon's medical orderly. As the platoon begin to leave the bedroom Mainwaring admits to Godfrey that he is still unable to understand one thing, namely, why Godfrey never wears his medal? Godfrey replies by saying that he feels it “would be rather ostentatious.” Mainwaring replies, “Ostentatious!? Well, if I’d won the MM I should have been so proud that I would have worn it on my chest for the whole world to see.” Godfrey replies, “That would have been alright for you, sir, because you look like a hero.” Mainwaring, chuckles pleasedly at this comment but, as he does so, Wilson delivers the final line of the episode, “Well, it just goes to show, sir, you can’t always go by appearances.”

—o0o—

ADDRESS
On the bravery of Private Godfrey—a Remembrance Sunday meditation

Arnold Ridley as "Private Godfrey"
My very brief remarks today about remembering centre on the much-loved character of Private Godfrey taken in relation to some thoughts by the American poet and conscientious objector William Stafford.

I would like Godfrey to stand for us today as an exemplary figure symbolising all those who, as conscientious objectors, found ways to play important, and I would say, vital and necessary roles in our societies during times of war. The basic point I’d like us to hold in mind is that, even when the moral need for war is as powerful as it was during World War Two, conscientious objectors and pacifists remain essential to the overall well-being and decency of our society. They seem to me powerfully to remind us that we know, deep in hearts, how our world both could, and should, be. It’s important to add here that I am not seeking to persuade you to become, yourself, a pacifist, but I am seeking to persuade you of their vital and necessary role in any decent, balanced and healthy society and that their contributions make them also worthy of remembrance at this time of year.

William Stafford tellingly felt his position as a pacifist was “not so much an achieved position as a desired position” and that he understood peace and reconciliation as a fundamental process, a daily job. In other words, conscientious objection wasn’t for him a matter of merely adhering to some predetermined absolute, definite, doctrinal principle but always an ongoing, lived response to the complexities, ambiguities and anomalies of reality.

This mix of always-unfolding complexities, ambiguities and anomalies is powerfully brought home to us in Stafford’s words about “The Fallacy of Retrospective Certainty”. In the here and now, none of us can ever be certain which people are going to be the really dangerous ones. And thank heavens for this, because how many apparently bad apples have you have known that have gone on to be good, kind and decent people, or at least not turned out anywhere near as badly as you thought? Many, I’m sure, and it reveals the truth of Stafford’s comment that, at least at certain times and certain places, “One must learn to waver” in matters of judgement — especially in those judgements that will result in the taking of another life.

For me, Godfrey stands as someone who has deeply learnt this lesson. Intuitively acknowledging the complexities, ambiguities and anomalies of reality he rightly wavers before the idea of killing the mouse and, naturally for him, he also, rightly, wavers before the idea of killing a German whom he knows is a living being just like him, and just like the mouse. Godfrey is highly aware of the difficulties of judging consequences and in his own life consistently decides that “it seems better to be civilised, to rely on group realisations, to cultivate order.” Part of Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s great genius as the show’s writers was to be able to show us clearly and simply how Godfrey’s wavering is not at all the wavering of a coward — after all his wavering about the rightness of killing results in a clear, conscious decision to serve his nation by joining the Royal Army Medical Corps — instead, Perry and Croft show us the wise-wavering of a very brave, sensitive and insightful man.

In my opinion we must never forget that we are always in need of people like Godfrey who remind us of the complexities of life and of the fact that, were we ever to decide only to have amongst us “shouting rulers amongst fools” — as Captain Mainwaring and the platoon would be without Godfrey — we are always going to be diminished as human beings and in the deepest of trouble.

To be sure, most of us realise that it wouldn’t at all be a good idea to put Godfrey in charge of the platoon (and Godfrey would be the first to agree with this) but think about it, would you really want to be part of a platoon (or a society) that didn’t have in it a Godfrey? I don’t think most of us would. We look at Godfrey and see a man continually helping the whole platoon to understand the immense value of becoming a rounded and nuanced group of people and to see that it is always important “to rely on group realisations”. In so doing, Godfrey also continually helps them “to cultivate order” — an appropriate order that is flexible, pluralist, gently and democratically arrived at.

As you heard, on 23 November 1967, Stafford wrote in his journal the following words:

“A job: To help make it possible for others to feel they can use pleasant methods to save the world. To influence foreign governments. To spring off little pieces of insight and save them out of gross events and scenes.”

For me, Godfrey stands out as a person who bravely carried out this most difficult of jobs. He always sought to help the rest of the platoon (and us) to feel that it was always possible for us to use “pleasant methods to save the world” and his chief tools in this holy and divine task were, in addition to his innate gentleness and compassion, his sister’s (Dolly and Cissy’s) tasty cakes and his own unparalleled ability to make an excellent and restorative cup of tea.

As we see him lying in bed recovering from his most recent act of bravery, we watch him beautifully and gently able to “spring off little pieces of insight” and, in so doing, he manages to save the platoon and particularly Captain Mainwaring, from “out of [their previous] gross events and scenes.” The platoon, and I would argue, all of us, emerge from this touching episode transformed, we are improved, made better by Godfrey whether we are pacifists or not. We end up displaying a way of life that can, I think, be said to “influence foreign governments” even if only just a little. But let’s not forget every little thing counts in the long and difficult march to global peace.

Before I close I think it is very important to add that the actor who played Godfrey, Arnold Ridley, served during the First World War with the Somerset Light Infantry and fought in the Battle of the Somme where he was severely wounded. He also served in the Home Guard during World War Two. As you can see, Ridley was, most certainly, not a conscientious objector. It appears that when he first read the script he said to Jimmy Perry, one of the writers, “its good to mention conchies as they were called, because they went through hell a lot of them, and a lot of them had high principles. I'm very honoured to play it."

So, I today I simply ask that, in our remembering of those who bravely and selflessly fought, killed and laid down their lives for us in war, we never, ever, forget those conscientious objectors and pacifists who bravely kept alive a vital aspect of humanity that would have been lost without their own contributions to the war effort. As a nation, as much as a platoon, we need always to love, remember well and give thanks for our nation’s many Godfrey’s.

May it be so.
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