Remembrance Sunday

Fr Paul’s sermon:

Yesterday was the ninety-ninth anniversary of the Armistice at the end of the First World War, and next year we shall have completed the centenary of our remembrance. I am currently reading Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain, her account of her early life. In August 1914 she was just twenty, and had just won a place at Oxford, in the face of great opposition from her family.  Her father thought education was wasted on women, and thought his daughter should find a husband with money and settle down, and not hanker after a career of her own. Vera’s brother, on the other hand, had been sent to Eton, and when he brought a slightly older friend home with him one holiday, Vera fell in love. Roland, the friend, and Edward, her brother, were also going to Oxford, but when war broke out, the young men thought it their duty to volunteer, as did so many others. Not because they thought war glorious, but because they thought they had a duty to their country. Vera started at Oxford, but after a year, with those she loved facing danger, she gave up her ambitions and volunteered to train as a nurse. She tended the wounded first in London, and later in Malta and France, where she nursed even German prisoners and learned to see them as human beings, not just “the enemy”; but by the end of the war, both her fiancé and her brother had been killed, as well as other young men she had known. Although eventually she married and had children – her daughter is Shirley Williams – the scars of the War never left her.

I was born just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and my own childhood was marked by it. All you older one’s will have had similar experiences. It’s tempting, on this annual Remembrance Sunday, to look back. But if we look around, we can see the horror and devastation of war still with us, in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere. In the first Would War, casualties were mainly among the troops at the front, professional or conscripted. In the second war, civilian casualties outmatched those in the armed forces, although those were considerable. In modern warfare, often conducted by remote control with rockets and drones, military casualties can be reduced to a minimum – but civilian casualties have become enormous, to say nothing of the sufferings of refugees who flee the war zones but find no sanctuary outside them.

One hundred years ago, the belief that political disputes could be solved by military means was widespread. Those who survived the Great War cam to doubt it. Politicians, rather than military men, tend to think that there are military solutions. In our own day, it has probable been the Iraq War that has exposed the fallacy.

Recently, one or two people have said to me that wearing a poppy “glorifies war”. Actually, professional soldiers tend not to regard war as glorious, and do not like having to kill other professional soldiers. The letters Vera Brittain received from her friends at the front reveal this. By and large, the only people who glorify war today are a minority of fanatics, political and/or religious, such as ISIS, and they do not wear poppies. Those of us who do, do so to remind ourselves and others of the intolerable and unacceptable cost of war, the suffering inflicted not merely on those directly killed or injured in fighting, but on families and communities who are bereaved and brutalised. We don’t think, “How gloriously they died in battle,” but, “what a waste.” The work of the British Legion, largely funded each year by the poppy appeal, continues to pick up the pieces on behalf of survivors.

When we look at the names on war memorials (such as our own), particularly those belonging to small communities, villages and parishes, we are appalled at the sheer number of them. Each was once a living person, a young man (mostly, in those days) whose hopes and ambitions were destroyed, like the friends of Vera Brittain. Many more survived so badly disabled that normal life was impossible afterwards. Many young women had their hopes of marriage and family life taken away, because the men they might have married were dead.

Remembrance is important, because once we forget the tragedies of the past, we risk repeating them. Of course we should campaign for peace; but our campaign will only be effective if we remember the cost of failure. Let us give thanks for the men and women who serve in the armed forces; and let us pray that they will not be asked to sacrifice their lives.