Bishopric of the Forces: Pastoral Letter


6 November 2007



Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few

As Remembrance Sunday comes round again this year, we renew our gratitude to those who have risked life and limb in wars and conflicts to protect our country and preserve the values we cherish most dearly. This year, more people are added to our prayers: servicemen and women who have given their today that we might have our tomorrow.

It was Sir Winston Churchill, referring to the role of the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, who said:

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

I wish respectfully to borrow his words and apply them to all three Services today. For, in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in other conflicts around the globe, our nation owes a huge debt of gratitude for the sacrifices made by so many in our Forces today, and indeed for the sacrifices made by their families too. The risk to life and limb facing every serviceman and woman on operations has increased. The State’s duty of care in return has increased, but sometimes is found wanting. Any nation’s conscience that is properly formed will demand, as of right, that it stands by its moral commitment to its troops in conflict, in death and in injury, and that it does the very best for their anxious and grieving families too. Offering the minimum is not enough: not in wages, nor in equipment, nor in housing, nor in medical care. I call upon the Government not only to extend what they have already offered, but to go that extra mile in providing even better support and care for our troops. There have been improvements in kit, in equipment, in housing, and in other areas in recent times. Yet, I ask the Government to dig deeper to support the true “Rock” of our nation, that rock which is our Armed Forces, on whom falls the burden of maintaining so many of the values we hold dearly, and among whom also lives the hope that they are contributing to the building of a better world. What they are doing calls for extra sacrifices to be made by the Government, in recognition of the sacrifices made by Serving Personnel and their families.

There is a tendency to forget the role of Service families in the rush to aid other more visible areas of public life, important as they are. The needs of Service families deserve attention. Extra money was recently announced for improvements to housing. But what is that among so many, and spread across so many years? It’s another example of overstretched resources. The condition of many Service Quarters has been described as “appalling” – here and now. Only a lump-sum injected without delay will bring positive effects to the quality of life and support that a family gives to one of its own in the Forces - now, at a time of conflict, rather than waiting until later. We should never forget that when members of the Forces go to war, their families go too, every day in their hearts, until their loved ones come home, alive or dead, healthy or injured. Yet, few ever return from war unmarked. The experience returns with them, to trouble them. Where post-operational medical care exists for physical as well as mental problems, doctors and nurses provide a service that is second to none. But not everyone has access to it – or immediate access to it. It may not be until a year or two has passed that chronic suffering catches up unawares. By then the serviceman or woman may have left the Forces, and is deprived of the support that previously came from the military environment, in the form of camaraderie, and the specialist, holistic care that would previously have contributed to a speedy recovery. The support that families give meanwhile is hidden and undervalued, because the focus is on active servicemen and women.

The sacrifice made by Service personnel and their loved ones demands sacrifices to be made by the Government too. Just as we call for so much unstintingly from our men and women in uniform, and from their suffering families, let us as a nation call on the Government – and on all Parties – to have a greater human understanding of what families are actually experiencing. Let everyone be unstinting in stating that never was so much owed by so many to so few. Gratitude and understanding need to be shown in even more generous measures, if Sir Winston’s words are to mean anything today at all.

+ Thomas Matthew