If there is any advantage to a state church, it is the religious stagecraft it can produce for momentous occasions of state that crave spiritual sanction. For all its faults, the Church of England remains expert at such events. Its latest success was commemorating at Westminster Abbey a couple weeks ago the 70th anniversary of the decisive Battle of El Alamein.
The battle in Egypt's western desert defeated German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, celebrated as the "Desert Fox," after his string of victories across North Africa. El Alamein was a tonic for somber Britain, which had weathered three years of nearly continuous defeat. Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the time called it a "bright gleam that caught the helmets of the soldiers, and warmed and cheered all our hearts." He ordered Britain's church bells rung nationwide for the first time since World War II had begun. "Before Alamein we never had a victory," he later said. "After Alamein we never had a defeat." The battle's hero was General, later Field Marshall, Bernard Montgomery, who would remain Britain's most celebrated wartime commander. Clashing with American generals like Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton, Montgomery typically fairs poorly in American produced dramas, such as the 1971 academy award winning Patton with George C. Scott. Indisputably eccentric, if maybe not always as preening and insufferable as his American allies portrayed him, Montgomery was still a suitable military hero for a Britain desperately in need of one.
Montgomery's 84-year-old son, the current Viscount of El Alamein, wonderfully read from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans at the commemorative service: "Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light." Over 40 survivors of the battle attended the evensong worship at Westminster Abbey. They were a small remnant of the 200,000 British Commonwealth and other Allied forces at the battle in 1942, about 4,000 of whom were killed. At stake had been the Suez Canal, the oil of the Middle East, and ultimately strategic access to the underbelly of the Soviet Union, where most of the German army was then locked in murderous struggle.
Germany throughout the war struggled for oil, and Rommel's Afrika Korps was itself nearly depleted at the time of El Alamein. While the British Eighty Army was by then engorged with supplies, especially tanks and planes from both Britain and the U.S., the Germans were down to a few dozen tanks by the battle's conclusion. Rommel himself had in fact returned to the front only after the battle had begun, having been recuperating from illness in Germany. An initial order from Hitler forbade retreat, but withdrawal was eventually countenanced by Berlin, and Rommel uncharacteristically had to flee. Tens of thousands of Italian troops, not so uncharacteristically, were left to surrender. Churchill famously declared afterwards: "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
One British general who attended the Westminster service commented: "In the Abbey I felt huge poignancy because you're aware when you lay the wreath on behalf of all those thousands of men who died at Alamein and just around you are just a few who really knew them and felt their pain, so I think I felt honoured and privileged."
Another British general was also quoted in the same news release: "It's almost embarrassing to meet them to the extent that they are so humble and blasé about what we would have regarded as life changing experiences had we been there in a tank, in an armoured car, on the gun line, or as sappers clearing fields, all of the things you read about when you study El Alamein were described to me by those who actually did it. It's a unique experience."
A 91-year-old battle veteran told the assembled worshippers that his tank crew had traveled half way across North Africa, but all but he were killed by the time they crossed the Seine River later in France. The Dean of Westminster during the service somberly pledged: "We shall remember those who died in the battle and those who have died since, giving thanks for their courage and determination, and as we celebrate the reconciliation of former enemies we shall pray for lasting peace in the world." Standing at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior within the abbey, he commended all who fell at El Alamein to the "unfailing love of our heavenly Father."
The music at Westminster Abbey, performed by the Band of the Royal Artillery, included the Alamein March, the theme from Out of Africa, Nimrod the Hunter, and a Hymn to New England. The closing prayer, recalling Christ's victory over the grave, implored "eternal rest, we pray, to those who died in the desert of North Africa," whose "heroism" might inspire "coming of thy kingdom where memories are healed, and where grief gives way to joy." The crowd of about 500 recited the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and sang "God Save the Queen."
Clerics processed in flowing, bright vestments, while elderly veterans hobbled about clad in red uniforms festooned with medals. The British Empire might be gone, but its ceremonies, and its great Church, still live on, remembering supreme moments whose survivors are now increasingly few.