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by Major Paul Cordle
formerly Grenadier Guards
Samuel Bordoli
composer of The Great Silence

‘Bewilderment and grief swept over the nation in the years immediately following the end of the First World War as it attempted to come to terms with the scale of what had happened. The conflict had torn apart the fabric of society and the task of rebuilding fell upon the shoulders of those whose loved ones would not return. The idea of a two minutes’ commemorative pause was established by King George V in 1919 on Armistice Day; this first great silence was observed across the whole land. The process of regeneration and remembrance had begun in the spirit of optimism that this had been the war to end all wars’.

So writes Samuel Bordoli composer of a new choral anthem written to commemorate former choristers who fell in The First World War.
The Anthem

He continues - ‘Silence in music is a powerful metaphor. After the sound stops, all that remains is an echo. I composed this anthem to commemorate choristers who fell during the First World War. The text followed is Song and Pain a poem written by Ivor Gurney*, a former chorister at Gloucester Cathedral (1900-1906), and suggested to me by The Right Reverend David Conner KCVO, Dean of Windsor. Gurney conceived the poem during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 at Crucifix Corner whilst serving with The Gloucestershire Regiment. The spirit of the words reflects the mood at the end of the war; it captures the idea of resurrection, that from the ashes, the soldier poet will endure his pain and enter the House of Joy’.

Ivor Gurney as a Private in the Gloucestershire Regiment. A chorister at Gloucester Cathedral (1900-1906), he was wounded and gassed. He died in 1937 Courtesy of The Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum

Song and Pain

Out of my sorrow
have I made these songs,
Out of my sorrow;

Though somewhat
of the making’s eager pain
From Joy did borrow.

Someday, I trust,
God’s purpose of Pain for me
Shall be complete,

And then -
to enter the House of Joy…..
Prepare, my feet.           
                               Ivor Gurney

‘It is unprecedented for a musical work to be composed specifically to commemorate choristers who have lost their lives in war. Their echo and the regenerative spirit of The Great Silence create a legacy for young musicians and choristers of today’.

This was very much in mind when the anthem was premiered in September 2016 during a concert in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle celebrating HM The Queen’s 90th birthday; the concert was part of Windsor Festival. It was sung by four choirs, all with links to Her Majesty, brought together for the second time only at the suggestion of HRH The Earl of Wessex. The choirs were The Children and Gentlemen of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, The Choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, The Choir of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace, and The Choir of The Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy. They were conducted by Huw Williams, Director of Music at HM Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace for the performance of The Great Silence.

Soon after the premiere the anthem was also sung on Remembrance, Sunday 13th November 2016, in St Clement Danes, the Central Church of the Royal Air Force.


Former choristers from all walks of life and of all ages (many under age), enlisted during the First World War. They came from across the United Kingdom (which then included what is now the Republic of Ireland) and the British Empire. They died in their thousands but it is unlikely that even an approximate number will ever be known.

To give an idea of the potential scale of loss, in 5 churches alone, in and near London, there are as many as 65 choristers named on First World War memorials. For example, HM Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace has 11 listed and St Paul’s Cathedral 24; of the latter 1 was in the Royal Navy, 20 in the Army, 2 in the Royal Flying Corps and 1 in the Royal Air Force. The Cathedral’s memorial, one of the few in the country dedicated to choristers, pays them the tribute:  

‘The men were very good unto us - They were a wall unto us both by night and by day’. 1 Samuel 25:16

‘So they passed over and all the trumpets sounded for them on the other side’. The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan, 1678

Church records and family histories vary greatly in their detail; some give us little help whilst others are movingly descriptive. For instance, much is known about St Paul’s Cathedral chorister Brian Calkin who was killed aged 18 as a Lieutenant with the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment; he enlisted in 1914 aged 16. The author Juliet Nicolson writes a moving story about him in her book The Perfect Summer**. On the other hand, little is known about Private Robert Dibble, 4th Battalion Grenadier Guards (killed at the Somme in 1916 aged 23 and listed on the Thiepval Memorial) and Trooper William Knight, 2nd Life Guards and Guards Machine Gun Regiment (died of wounds 1920 aged 27 and buried in Windsor) both from the choir of The Royal Chapel, Windsor Great Park; their parents worked and lived at Cumberland Lodge in the Great Park. Another St Paul’s Cathedral chorister, Lieutenant (Acting Captain) John Pritchard sang at the Coronation of King Edward VII in Westminster Abbey 1902 at which his cousin the Kaiser was present. He joined the Honourable Artillery Company in 1909 and went to France as a sergeant.  He was commissioned, wounded and invalided home early in the war; when fit he returned to France and was killed, aged 31, at Bullecourt on 15th May 1917, one of the 250 men the HAC lost that day. His body was not found until 2009; he was buried with full military honours in the HAC Cemetery at Écoust-Saint-Mein.

Taking Part

Everyone can take part and help The Great Silence project in four ways:

by encouraging churches, schools and colleges to download the musical score and to sing it at remembrance time whether specifically commemorating fallen choristers or all their war dead. A part of the money raised from downloading the score will go to the project’s chosen charities; they all support the making, playing and singing of English church music and anthems. Details on The Great Silence website. 

by researching and encouraging others to research:
local records and talking to descendants of those killed to establish if they had been a chorister before enlisting.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead.aspx) to establish the rank and age at date of death and place of burial or memorial.
Regimental records and information on the web to learn about events and the circumstances of death. A wealth of information is readily available.  

Adding details and stories about former choristers killed in the First World War, and memorials dedicated to them, to The Great Silence website - 

Encouraging schools to set up a project along the above lines. As 2018 approaches this would offer children a timely project with the inbuilt benefit of personal involvement in commemoration and an insight into the cost of The Great War in the own community.

HRH The Earl of Wessex discussing the anthem with Samuel Bordoli after its premiere in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. In the background The Rt Revd David Conner KCVO, Dean of Windsor. Copyright Gill Aspel Photography

Footnote. The Great Silence was sung at St Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday 14th May 2017 during a special Evensong commemorating its fallen choristers and, in particular, John Pritchard, on the eve of the centenary of his death 15th May 1917.

* Ivor Gurney tried to enlist in 1914, was rejected due to poor eyesight and eventually joined up in early 1915 as a private with the 2nd/5th Gloucestershire Regiment. He was wounded in early 1917, and later during the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Ypres), was gassed and invalided home. He died in December 1937; it is hoped that the anthem will be sung in Gloucester Cathedral in December 2017.

**Juliet Nicolson’s books The Perfect Summer (2007) and The Great Silence (2009) capture the run-up to and aftermath of The Great War; they are essential reading for those wishing to understand the public mood of the time. Juliet is right to argue that each of the three great silences at and after the end of the war was momentous. The first was on the Western Front at 11.00 am on 11th November 1918 when the guns fell silent; the second on Armistice Day 1919 when the first 2 minutes’ silence and act of remembrance took place at Sir Edward Lutyens’ wooden Cenotaph; the third was on Armistice Day 1920 when the gun carriage bearing the ‘Unknown Warrior’ stopped in homage at the completed stone Cenotaph on its way to Westminster Abbey.

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