This year has been a significant one in terms of remembrance. At 11pm on Monday 4th this year, lights went out across the country as we envisaged the sinking feeling that our forebears must have experienced a hundred years ago, as Germany failed to responds to the British ultimatum that could have prevented war.
Diplomacy disintegrated, mobilisation across Europe was ordered and the end of the month the guns were roaring and crashing around the soldiers of the tiny British Expeditionary Force as it stood against the might of the German Army main attack into Belgium.
The 2nd battalion of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry had landed in Boulogne on 14th August ready to part of that fight
The first British soldier killed in the war – John Parr killed on 21st, is buried in the cemetery of St Symphorein just outside Mons, only yards from where the last British soldier was killed and buried over four years later, is buried. His name was George Edwin Ellison. In between those two events, according to official statistics, 888,244 British and Colonial soldiers lost their lives. Millions more from other nations suffered the same fate.
I wonder whether you have had the opportunity to visit the moving artistic tribute entitled ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ at the Tower of London – 888,246 ceramic poppies filling the Tower’s famous moat – each poppy represents a British military fatality during the war.
For families, communities, for nations, this was a tragic loss of life – and of course more sadly, it turned out not to be ‘The war that would end all wars’.
Such huge events, such loss of life, seem overwhelming to comprehend but it is that figure of 888,246 that illuminates the dilemma. Nations, armies and communities are not faceless collective entities but are made up of individual people so I would argue that we need to see the loss of life not so much as a national tragedy but as 888,246 personal tragedies. Each life lost ws someone’s son or daughter, brother, sister, husband or friend.
At the entrance to the little Musgrave Museum in Eastbourne now sadly closed there was a small wooded glass fronted stand which contained, a photograph of a soldier, a small pencil drawing of a train, the picture of a little boy and above them the words ‘The dad I never knew’. George Musgrave who dies in late 2012 had the collection on display. George had no recollection of his Dad but on that picture of a train, drawn under fire in the trenches was the little inscription ‘To little George for his birthday from Daddy’.
I came across a quote which would summarise my view at least on how we should think of it.
Forget about battle,
Weapons and strategies
Focus on men,
on their stories and they will lead
you to discover the undiscovered.
With it being the 100 year anniversary of the outbreak of war, loads of books have been written to opine on the conflict from every angle. I know because I have bought many of them. There is a terrible danger that we become almost voyeuristic albeit from a distance, forgetting as former archbishop Runcie once wrote that ‘war represents failure’. How beautiful these cemeteries are – these memorials are and yet they hide a terrible failure of humanity to get along with one another.
One of the most terrifying things about war is how it brutalises and dehumanises. Some time ago, I came across a quote from Berlin: The Downfall 1945 in which the writer tells of the horrifying and brutal events of the last weeks of the Second World War.
One of the most unintentionally revealing remarks recorded in the book was made by a General Maslov of the Russian army. Maslov described German children crying as they searched desperately for their parents in a blazing town. ‘What was surprising,’ wrote Maslov, ‘was that they were crying in exactly the way that our children cry.’
The twentieth century was a century of war – the statisticians tell us more people died in that century in war than all the other centuries put together.
And now in this century, we continue to witness wars and rumours of wars. How do we respond? Some years ago the Poppy Appeal had the slogan, “The best way to honour the dead, is to care for the living.”
I think the Royal British Legion got it exactly right. We look back in thankfulness for deliverance, but that remembering is only worth anything if we are doing something with what the struggle of the wars saved for us.
History tells us that we are not always good at doing this. The lessons of the Great War were not learned – WW2 proved that. Much of inability to get along stems back to a very simple issue – I call it the ‘us and them’ issue.
Reflecting on the brutality and inhumanity of Auschwitz, Thomas Merton wrote that in order something like Auschwitz to happen.
It is enough to affirm one basic principle: anyone belonging to class x or nation y or race z is to be regarded as worthless, and consequently has no right to exist. All the rest will follow without difficulty. As long as this principle is easily available, as long as it is taken for granted, as long as it can be spread out on the front pages at a moment’s notice and accepted by all, we have no need of monsters: ordinary policemen and good citizens will take care of everything.
Even today, in the United Kingdom is it going too far to suggest at a basic level that the us and them factor is still alive and kicking! It is certainly there in our wider world.
Into this, Jesus’ great call and command to love one another remains consistent in its relevance to us! In another place he goes further to encourage us to ‘love our enemies – to bless those who curse us’. It remains as radical now as it has ever been – the need to see others as God sees them – created in his image – of intrinsic value not for what they contribute but who and what they are. Perhaps the task of education goes beyond academic achievement etc. and is about encouraging a new generation who will learn to embrace difference in a kind and loving way, who to loosely quote Churchill, ‘will learn from history in order that they don’t repeat it’.