On Saturday, my father’s final wish was honoured. His ashes, in a naval-approved casket, were ‘committed to the deep’.
My father had long desired some sort of sea burial. This was the legacy of his two years, in the mid-1950s, as a national serviceman in the Royal Navy.
That they should have facilitated his request was not special treatment for a former Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The Royal Navy Chaplaincy service offers the committal of ashes at sea for former personnel, mostly out of Portsmouth. Which is where my father’s final journey began: appropriately, as he had been based there when in the Navy.
One old sea salt warned me: ‘Just make sure you ask for a proper chart, marked with the spot, and that the casket is properly weighted. Don’t want your father making an ignominious reappearance on Southsea Beach (as has occurred).’ All I can say is, so far so good.
A stirring farewell: Sub-Lieutenant Nigel Lawson in the mid-1950s
DOMINIC LAWSON: According to Gus Carnie, my father was involved with commanding a motor torpedo boat called Gay Charger, one of a group of newly-commissioned very fast vessels
In preparation for the event, the Naval Historical Branch provided us with details of the service record of ‘Sub-Lieutenant Nigel Lawson’.
In an accompanying letter, Captain Gus Carnie, military assistant to the First Sea Lord, pointed out that it was then ‘a rarity’ for a national serviceman not already in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve to become a commissioned officer (my father had started as an ‘ordinary seaman’).
When I read through the early comments of his commanding officer, this elevation seemed even more surprising: ‘Lawson made a poor start due to over-anxiety and inexperience … he does not appear to get the best out of his ratings due to tactlessness.’
But things improved, with a later such report noting: ‘Lawson, although lacking their experience, compares favourably with his active service counterparts. He has reacted well to the responsibility given to him. He has a pleasant manner to both officers and men. He could be more self-assertive.’
That last sentence astounded me. A more self-assertive man would be hard to imagine, and he was not so very young at the time, as he had completed his university education before being called up.
DOMINIC LAWSON: On Saturday, my father’s final wish was honoured. His ashes, in a naval-approved casket, were ‘committed to the deep’. My father had long desired some sort of sea burial. This was the legacy of his two years, in the mid-1950s, as a national serviceman in the Royal Navy
It is tempting to see this progression as a proof of the benefits of a military training, somehow inculcating the skills of leadership in a way nothing else could.
According to Gus Carnie, my father was involved with commanding a motor torpedo boat called Gay Charger, one of a group of newly-commissioned very fast vessels: ‘It may be best to emphasise the experimental nature of this class of boats and the need for enthusiastic officers to undertake the trials that would shape power generation and hull form for the Royal Navy of the future. I can now imagine him whizzing across Stokes Bay with the freedom of temporary command.’
I certainly imagined that as we prepared to lay his remains to rest in the Solent. But I was most touched by the words of an officer when I told him how stirring we were finding this: ‘It is as poignant for us, too, when one of our own crosses the bar.’
This was a reference to Tennyson’s elegy, thought to have been written while the poet crossed exactly that stretch of water, after a serious illness:
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.’
Though my father had not the least belief in any form of deity or afterlife: for him the sea burial was the fullest of full stops. As for his sense of connection with the Navy, while that continued for the rest of his life in an emotional sense, his records seem to end in 1963: that is the date of the last mention of his being a member of the Naval Reserve.
And that was also the final year of the experiment of National Service. It began in 1947, and was steadily wound down from 1957.
One of the seismic effects of the 1956 Suez fiasco was to wrench the United Kingdom out of the delusion that it could continue to maintain Imperial control by military means.
As Tom Hickman notes in his wonderful book The Call Up (for which he interviewed my father, along with more than a hundred other former national servicemen): ‘By April 1963 there were only 2,500 national servicemen in uniform. The national serviceman with the last issued number (23819209), Private Fred Turner, a cook with the 13th/18th Hussars, flew home from Germany and became a civilian on 7th May.’
To mark the 60th anniversary of that final demob, there is to be a commemorative event on May 16 at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, to acknowledge the contribution of those who served.
And the Royal British Legion has launched a campaign (Ask Dad/Ask Grandad) to find ‘Unsung Heroes’ who completed their national service.
There certainly were those. While national servicemen such as my father never saw action, the period saw the British armed forces involved in savage conflict in Korea, and in the Malayan Emergency.
Of the 2,000 British military who lost their lives in ‘engagement with the enemy’ between the end of the Second World War and the termination of conscription, 395 of them were national servicemen.
The point is that National Service was not designed as a means of making Britain’s young men into ‘good chaps’, still less future leaders. It was deemed militarily essential — though this was an oddity in British history, as traditionally we, unlike many European states, had never seen the need for a large standing army.
Very few Western nations now have full-blown compulsory military service; most are faint echoes of what once had been. Two countries which have maintained the real thing are Finland and Israel — for good reason, given their immediate neighbourhoods.
And while there is always a call for the restoration of National Service here (both King Charles, when Prince of Wales, and Prince Harry have lent their names to this cause), in the top ranks of the military, there is something like horror at the thought of it. They have no desire to become uniformed youth workers.
As the former Army Chief Lord Dannatt observes: ‘While there is an attraction in larger numbers of young people doing a period of time in uniform assimilating the core values of discipline, loyalty, integrity, courage … the investment required to recreate the enormous training machine previously in place would be wildly unaffordable. Moreover, the qualitative advantages of a small, all-volunteer, long-serving force would be lost.’
All true. But still, it helped make my father what he was.
Source : https://www.dailymail.co.uk/columnists/article-12005291/DOMINIC-LAWSON-weekend-buried-father-sea.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ito=1490&ns_campaign=1490&rand=1270