H.M. the Queen is probably the last major public figure to have served in uniform in the Second World War. The Queen served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service where she learnt both to drive and to maintain vehicles. Her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, of course, served in the senior service, the Royal Navy. He served in the Mediterranean and Pacific Fleets and was involved in both the battle of Crete and mentioned in dispatches for his services during the battle of Cape Matapan.
What is probably less well-known is the part played by the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother. Princess Alice was living in Athens when it was occupied by the invading Nazis. As a granddaughter of Queen Victoria a senior Nazi was sent to visit her. He asked her if there was anything he could do for her. ‘Yes’ she replied. ‘You can take your troops out of my country.’ And with that, she left the room.
To demand the withdrawal of the invading army was in many ways the least of the ways in which the princess resisted the occupying regime. She hid Jews, distributed food parcels, cared for orphans, ran soup kitchens and nursed the injured. On occasions she found that being selectively deaf meant that attempts to question her by the secret police inevitably failed, since they could be met with claims that she couldn’t hear what was being said.
All of her actions were motivated by her devout Christian faith, which meant that she believed in the preciousness of humanity and took seriously the need to serve others. When widowed she became a nun, which is why among the splendidly dressed figures at her daughter-in-law’s coronation there is a figure in a grey nun’s habit.
The princess could sometimes be very difficult and she never abandoned her enthusiasm for both smoking and playing canasta. On the other hand she very much embodied a Christian response to the abuse of power and the oppression of the weak.
On Remembrance Sunday we will recall all acts of heroism in war, the tragedy of death in war and also renew our commitment to building a world where service to others matters and the hope of the better way is held out. At the end of November we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. If we all became voluntary members of the Kingdom of God then war and oppression would, indeed, be at an end.