Over the last few years there have been many publications, documentaries, exhibitions and events to mark the centenary of the First World War. For me the most touching discovery was a scratchy twenty-second recording of unfamiliar lyrics sung to a familiar tune.
Born to Irish parents in Fulham in 1895, Edward Dwyer joined the East Surrey Regiment at the age of 16. When war broke out he served in the Retreat from Mons, the first battle fought by the British Army against the Germans. After his heroic grenade defence of a trench on Hill 60 just outside Ypres in April 1915, he became (at the time) the youngest person to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
The following year, recuperating from injuries back in England, Dwyer made a sound recording on the Regal label. It is thought to be the only such recording of a serving British soldier during World War I. In less than six minutes he talks about life at the front, pay and rations and so forth. He observes that, to keep their spirits up, the troops sang songs with their own rewritten lyrics. To the tune of Auld Lang Syne he croons:
‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.
We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.’
Dwyer’s jaunty voice reaches out to us across a hundred years with eerie immediacy. It’s a tragic thought, that the soldiers on the front line had no real sense of why they were on a particular mission or manoeuvre. They got on with the job without knowing what the job was. And laughed about it.
This seems to me quite an indictment of leadership. You can’t expect the rank and file to have detailed knowledge of strategy. But surely they should be able broadly to articulate why they’re there.
In the world of commerce we spend a lot of time articulating corporate vision and values. We invest in colleague engagement exercises, cascade meetings and internal communications. We introduce staff to the latest thought pieces, catchy acronyms and mots du jour. We talk a great deal about the need to define the Purpose of our brands and businesses.
But are these efforts convincing or confusing? Are our Purposes genuinely for the benefit of the workforce? Or are they exercises in corporate vanity? Can we really be confident that, at a fundamental level, our staff know what they’re about? Or are they here because they’re here because they’re here?
Later the same year that Dwyer made that haunting recording, he was back on active service. On 3 September 1916 at Guillemont, in one of the many battles of the Somme, Corporal Edward Dwyer VC was killed in action. He was just a couple of months short of his twenty first birthday.
I wrote this piece to mark Armistice Day 2016.
’At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.’