The lodge was opened in due form and ceremonial by the WM Brian Jackson, ably assisted by his senior warden Ray Marshall and acting junior warden Brad Gough, along with acting director of ceremonies Tim Burgess. Brian next welcomed the many visitors to the lodge, explaining how the regular November meeting of Blenheim Lodge No 7519 has for many years now encompassed their annual Remembrance Service, including the ‘Empty Chair Ceremony’ which takes place within the lodge room. During the meeting the lodge agreed a charitable donation of £150 to the Army Benevolent Fund.
With lodge business completed, Brian Jackson explained that the next item would be the annual ‘Empty Chair Ceremony’. This ceremony is believed to date back to 1875, a decade after the close of the American Civil War, when it was used in Freemasons’ lodges to pay tribute to those who did not return from the war. Since then, it has been used by many lodges worldwide at or near to Remembrance Day to pay homage to those Freemasons who fell during WW I, WW II, and other conflicts. It can also be adapted to remember brethren who have passed to the Grand Lodge above.
Blenheim Lodge itself was not consecrated until 1957, but as a daughter lodge from Marlborough Lodge No 1620 it keeps that inextricable link to the past, more so with the demise of its mother lodge in 2014, and holds dear those brethren of Marlborough Lodge who gave all. Each year the lodge chooses two brethren from these lodges to honour specifically; this year it was Master Peter MacLachlan and Private Alfred Reginald Cutts.
Peter MacLachlan was Captain of the 4649-tonne armed merchant vessel ‘S S Bellorado’ and lost his life when the ship was attacked in the Mediterranean Sea on 27 February 1917, with the loss of three lives. Peter, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records, died the following day aged 52 years. Alfred Reginald Cutts lost his life serving with the 19 Battalion King’s (Liverpool Regiment), ‘the Liverpool Pals’. After undergoing training, he went out to France and Flanders with the battalion but unfortunately was killed in action on 30 July 1916, aged 25 years. These brave brothers died fighting for the freedoms we all can enjoy because of them and men like them.
The ‘Empty Chair Ceremony’ begins outside the lodge room with the ’empty chair’, also known as the ‘Throne of Remembrance’ draped with the Union Flag, carried into the room by the two deacons; this honour being given to senior deacon Steve Linton and junior deacon John McKenna. They placed the chair in the east, in front of the WM’s pedestal and the apron of innocence was laid upon it, followed by the placement of a cross of remembrance and a trio of medals from WW 1 with an accompanying plaque.
The Rev Fred Bermand placed a sprig of laurel, the emblem of immortality, with the reading of Psalm 23. The brethren then paid tribute to the fallen members of Marlborough Lodge, symbolically present at this time. Following from the tolling bell the two minutes silence was observed.
On completion of the meeting, the WM and his wardens led the procession from the Roman Suite, to the War Memorial in the main corridor. In keeping with the unwritten tradition since its consecration, no regalia or badge of rank is ever worn. When it was cast in bronze it was decided that only the names of the fallen should be immortalised thereon; no rank, no decorations, as all are deemed equal.
Sadly, bugler Adrian Ogle who played the ‘Last Post’ for many years has passed to above, but the lodge was fortunate in having bugler Daniel Lee in attendance. The silence was then observed, followed by the laying of the Blenheim Lodge wreath by Brian Jackson.
A most poignant moment came when the senior warden of Blenheim Lodge, Ray Marshall, placed a personal wreath for his brother, Leading Cook Tony Marshall, Royal Navy, who was killed in action on 4 May 1982. Tony was working in the galley aboard Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield when she was hit in that area by an Exocet missile during the Falklands War. Although not sunk immediately she foundered under tow, eventually sinking on 10 May. Tony was one of 20 killed and the ship is now designated as a war grave. HMS Sheffield was the first Royal Navy vessel to be lost in action since the Second World War.
With the completion of the wreath laying the exhortation was given by Rev Fred Bermand, prior to recital of ‘In Flanders Fields’, the poem composed by Canadian doctor Major John McCrae. On the otherwise barren front, where 1,000s of soldiers had recently perished, he saw vast numbers of poppies blossoming in May 1915 while operating from the ‘Essex Fam’ advanced dressing station outside Ypres. It was in 1918, the year in which McCrae died, a young American woman became the first person to pin a silk poppy to her clothes. Her symbolic gesture was copied throughout the British Commonwealth and the poppy was soon adopted as the official symbol to be used in commemoration of the victims of the Great War.
For those attending for the first time they may have been surprised to see how many brethren wore their medals in miniature, the majority being campaign awards for service in zones of conflict and war.
After leaving the memorial service, everyone made their way to the Roman Dining Room for a continuation of the evening at the festive board. All enjoyed a hearty meal of exceptional quality, beginning with a fishcake and relish starter, a roast lamb main course, followed by sticky toffee pudding and finally a platter of various cheeses with biscuits. The nine o’clock toast was given by Brad Gough, while at the toast to absent and seafaring brethren, the name of the senior warden’s brother Tony Marshall of HMS Sheffield was given.
It was here that the brethren also thought of the lost brethren from the mother lodge, Marlborough Lodge who had been commemorated earlier within the lodge room. It is believed at least nine brethren of the lodge died through service in the Great War; two, Alf Cutts and William Shaw with the Liverpool Pals, Jim Clitheroe with the Royal Air Force and six through service at sea – John Chard, Acheson Forrest, Oswald George James, Pete MacLachlan, Syd Mathews and Bob Roust.
It was brought to the notice of all that one guest present was a fellow craft from Woolton Lodge No 6448, Peter Darlington, who was due to take his master mason or third degree one week after the meeting, and that it would be nice if some of Blenheim Lodge attended in support. It was also announced that £180 had been raised for charity during the evening. After the festive board a short film lasting 15 minutes was shown, ‘Ride to the Wall’, and was thoroughly enjoyed by all. Presented by ex-serviceman Ian Turner it commemorates the fallen, and how many of the former servicemen visit the National Memorial Arboretum, the British site of national remembrance at Alrewas, near Lichfield, Staffordshire. Its objective is to honour the fallen, recognise service and sacrifice and foster pride in the British Armed Forces and civilian community. Each year many attend en masse riding their motorcycles – a sight to behold.
Brian Jackson then invited Geoff Cuthill, the WM of Woolton Lodge No 6448 and of the Merseyside Association for Masonic Research, to give an address on an aspect of the Great War. Geoff chose two subjects this year. ‘The Titanic Gavel’ which was with regard to a gavel presented to Marlborough Lodge in 1912 through Oswald George James, who lost his life aboard the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. The other subject was the annihilation of the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles on 24 March 1918, as a result of the German spring offensive.
Brian thanked Geoff for his contribution; he has given a talk to the lodge at the November meeting since 2014 and it was now an annual event not to be missed. Sadly, the evening eventually came to a close with the tyler’s toast given by Fred Bernard, following which the brethren departed for home.