Friday, November 11, 2011

O Valiant Hearts

Of all the themes addressed in the catalog of sacred music, few weigh more heavily on the soul than the the loss of those who have given their lives in military service. Whether it is heard or sung by a mourning friend or a family member, or merely by a grateful fellow citizen, a hymn of remembrance for the fallen can provide sorely needed comfort and assurance to the spirit that the departed soldier, sailor, or airman did not die in vain, but "gave the last full measure of devotion" (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address) to his or her country and everything that that it, and we, hold precious.

Military hymns are widely heard on November 11, which is observed as Veterans Day in the United States and as Remembrance Day in Great Britain and Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These observances were established in the 1920s to commemorate the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918 that ended World War I--the so-called "War to End All Wars." If only it had been! The Great War, as it was called then, cost more than 117,00 American lives, but more than 10 million lives in Europe, in four short years. The fighting devastated large swaths of Europe, and with its mud-and-disease-ridden trench warfare, machine gunning, huge artillery barrages, and poison gas, involved combatants and civilians alike in a seemingly interminable orgy of suffering and death.

British wounded at Bernafay Wood, France, 19 July 1916

It's no wonder, then, that those who survived the Great War struggled to find some meaning in the tragic sacrifice of so many promising lives--young men they had known, loved, and cheered as they marched away into the most awful killing fields man has ever seen. For some, faith in God was shattered, but others turned to Him for comfort and hope with an even greater devotion. From that spirit was born the heart-rending, yet stirring hymn O Valiant Hearts. The text was taken from a poem by Sir John Stanhope Arkwright (1872–1954), a member of Parliament from Herefordshire, England, and published in "The Supreme Sacrifice, and other Poems in Time of War"(1919). It was set to music by Dr. Charles Harris, who was the vicar of Colwall in the same county. The combination of Harris' tune and Arkwright's words was an immediate success; the hymn was sung at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, London, on November 11 1920. Interestingly, according to a BBC feature on the hymn, "both men knew the pain of losing a loved one first hand - Dr. Harris lost a son in the First World War, and one of Sir John's two sons was killed in a submarine accident in World War II."

Sir John Stanhope Arkwright

The text and music of O Valiant Hearts are below:
O Valiant Hearts, who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle-flame,
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the Land you loved.

Proudly you gathered, rank on rank to war,
As who had heard God's message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave
To save Mankind - yourselves you scorned to save.

Splendid you passed, the great surrender made,
Into the light that nevermore shall fade;
Deep your contentment in that blest abode,
Who wait the last clear trumpet-call of God.

Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still
Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
While in the frailty of our human clay
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self-same way.

Still stands his cross from that dread hour to this

Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still through the veil the victor's pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.

These were his servants, in his steps they trod,
Following through death the martyr'd Son of God:
Victor he rose; victorious too shall rise
They who have drunk his cup of sacrifice.

O risen Lord, O shepherd of our dead,

Whose cross has bought them and whose staff has led-
In glorious hope their proud and sorrowing land
Commits her children to thy gracious hand.

What most impresses me about O Valiant Hearts is the compelling way in which it compares the brave sacrifice of the men who fought for their country and people with the selfless sacrifice of Christ ("[t]o save Mankind - yourselves you scorned to save.") Our Lord is presented as the One who showed the way through awful trial to eternal victory, and in whose footsteps the valiant marched: "These were his servants, in his steps they trod/Following through death the martyr'd Son of God:/Victor he rose; victorious too shall rise/They who have drunk his cup of sacrifice." No greater tribute could be paid to fighting men than this.

This moving video presentation of O Valiant Hearts features the singing of the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, and was created as a tribute to the author's grandfather and father, who fought in World Wars I and II, respectively.

Greater love hath no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends.

~ John 15:13


  1. I am writing this comment in a flood of tears....watching those courageous men living, fighting and dying in such horrific conditions in WW1. I wonder how many of those filmed survived the war? Did they receive the great medical care the video creator's uncle got? The music, and the words, are so incredibly moving; the tune has stayed in my mind and heart, since my own visit to Belgium last Armistice Day.

    "They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old;
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn:
    At the going down of the Sun, and in the Morning,
    We Will Remember Them".

    "For the Fallen"--by Laurence Binyon

  2. Magnificent Hymn which reminds me of my Dad. God Bless "The Fallen"

  3. A great hymn. I used to sing it as a choirboy at the war memorial in Southwick on Remembrance Sunday about 60 years ago. I have heard it rarely since that time, but it may be deservedly having something of a comeback this year (2014); it was good to hear it on BBC radio 4 morning service and also on TV Songs of Praise for this year's Remembrance Sunday.

  4. We shall never forget them

  5. I heard it again in Ieper (Belgium) on November 11th under the Menen gate.

  6. A bit late in answering but better late than never...

    It has been sung in Remberance Sunday Service here in Brigg, North Lincolnshire for at least the last two years and I assume many years before.