Corin Robertson

Corin Robertson

Deputy High Commissioner to Canada

Part of UK in Canada

4th June 2013 Ottawa, Canada

Cecil Spring-Rice: Singing the Unsung Hero

Most of us go through life trying to make a difference for the better, whether in a small way, or in a way that has a bigger, more lasting impact on the world around us. Very few people truly succeed in doing so. And of those that do, very few perhaps get the recognition they deserve.

One such person, whose life we will celebrate this week at the British High Commission is Sir Cecil Spring-Rice.

Sir Cecil Arthur Spring-Rice was a British diplomat who served as British Ambassador to the United States from 1912 to 1918. He is buried in Ottawa.
Sir Cecil Arthur Spring-Rice was a British diplomat who served as British Ambassador to the United States from 1912 to 1918. He is buried in Ottawa.

Spring-Rice was appointed as British Ambassador to the United States during the First World War. His one objective was to persuade the administration of Woodrow Wilson to abandon neutrality and join Britain and her allies in the war against Germany.

He succeeded, and in 1918 he set off on his return journey home, via Ottawa, where he stayed with the then Governor General at Rideau Hall. Sadly, he died whilst in Ottawa and is buried in Canada’s national cemetery, Beechwood.

As well as his efforts in Washington to support the US joining the war, Spring-Rice leaves another great legacy – he wrote the poem “I vow to thee my country”, which was put to music by Holst in 1921. He originally wrote the poem in 1908, but reworked it in 1918 in light of the huge losses suffered by British soldiers in the Great War.

The hymn was sung during both the wedding and funeral of Princess Diana, as well as at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral recently. It was also used at the opening of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. The first verse refers to the United Kingdom, and the second – “And there’s another country I have heard of long ago” – is a reference to heaven.

Spring-Rice’s contribution to history has largely been lost. He is one of life’s unsung heroes. But this Friday, we have the great privilege of welcoming his granddaughter and other family members to Canada for the unveiling of a memorial plaque at his grave in Beechwood cemetery, engraved with quotes from the hymn.

I’m particularly grateful to Ashley Prime, our Deputy Consul General in Toronto, for his personal commitment to this project, for coming up with the idea, connecting with Spring-Rice’s family and for raising the funds to make it happen.

The Great War was a horrific one – as all wars are – devastating entire families, and wiping out a whole generation of young men. It’s unthinkable to speculate on how different the world may now be if the Great War had lasted even longer than it did, and there had been even greater loss of life. For Cecil Spring-Rice’s contribution to preventing that, as well as his beautiful legacy of “I vow to thee my country”, I’m delighted that we can honour him this week.

Corin – @CorinRobertson

“I vow to thee my country”

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

8 comments on “Cecil Spring-Rice: Singing the Unsung Hero

  1. My grandfather Cecil Spring Rice’s poem originally consisted of the verse beginning “I heard my country calling away across the sea”
    The second verse to the above was the one beginning “And there’s another country” and the whole poem was written in 1912 and entitiled “Urbs Dei” the City of God.
    The lines “I vow to Thee” etc. were written in December 1917 a few days before he left office, and were sent in a private letter to Wilson’s former secretary of State W.J Bryan. The three verses have never belonged together.
    The family thinks that it was the 1912 “call” which brought Cecil’s brother back from Canada to join the looming war. He volunteered and was killed in France aged 51.

  2. I agree Cecil Spring-Rice was a remarkable man and worthy of commemorating. When he reworked the original hymn, he added in this verse, which I think we ought to hear when the centenary of World War 1 is marked.

    “I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
    Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me;
    Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on hear head;
    And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead;
    I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,
    I haste to thee my mother, a son among her sons.”

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About Corin Robertson

Corin Robertson has served as Deputy High Commissioner to Canada since August 2011.