In the years after the First World War, war memorials were a contentious subject. Not whether there should be any, but where they should be sited, what form they should take, and whose names were to be included or excluded. But then, if you watch Downton Abbey you know this already. In our own church, we have a memorial to those who died on active service in the First World War, and a larger record of all who served, but nothing for later years. A church my Father was once Minister of, near Nottingham, had a war memorial to civilians who died a result of bombing in their town. Our own Church House in London has a memorial to those who died during its total destruction in February 1945. Memorials were contentious in the years after World War One, and they still are today. I know my predecessor, rightly, said our war memorial should not be turned into a shrine. Our Farnham claim to fame is of the course the Two Minutes Silence, which began here, in May 1916.
The variety attitudes to war memorials, then and now, typify a greater unease in our Nonconformist tradition. I looked up our church records to see what was being done and said here during the two world wars. Church Meeting attendance was even more pathetic then than it is today – during the 1940s it was a rare Church Meeting that had attendance in double figures, and they seemed more concerned with keeping their building going than considering the world around them.
Looking elsewhere, the Revd Frank Collyer, of Godalming Congregational Church was more typical of many when he wrote in November 1914 that, “never have we fought for a nobler cause. Never have we striven so deliberately to keep the peace…we are fighting for freedom, civilisation, democracy and Christianity against a remorseless and evil barbarism…our fathers fought for us, and we hold them in honour. We must fight for our children…this church has given its sons for the great cause”. His own son was seriously injured on active service, but he didn’t change his tune. You can decide if that was integrity or stubbornness.
Not all nonconformists were of those views. The Revd Leyton Richards, of Bowdon Downs in Cheshire, was a leading pacifist, perhaps the leading pacifist of his generation, and he was sacked in 1916 when the Church had had enough of his views. Henry Child Carter, Minister of Emmanuel Congregational Church in Cambridge, wasn’t sacked, but had a very rough ride indeed. He was still Minister there in 1939, when his views were much better received, and many realised they should have paid more attention to him twenty-five years previously.
Here we are, one hundred years after 1914. Whatever our own views, the nation clearly thinks this one hundredth anniversary is of importance. Why does it matter?
First, it reminds us of a sense of the scale of the death and carnage. The figures are gruesome. There were probably 20 million deaths and around another 20 million casualties, people who survived but who bore the physical and mental scars for the rest of their life. What has been passed on from that generation to ours is not just how many people lost their lives but the manner of their dying. Unlike previous warfare, more of the combatants in the First World War actually died on the field of battle than of disease. Most of those 20 million men met their end in the heat of battle. Even more difficult is the fact that half of all the fatalities were simply lost in those battles. So at least 6 million families in this country sent their sons to war and never discovered what had happened to them.
Second, it was a conflict which changed our world so dramatically that nothing was ever the same again. Even something as recent as the start of the 20th century, there is no consensus about the causes, the course, and the consequences of the First World War. However, the world we experience was shaped by those events, from the beginning of modern, all-arms warfare to the social expectations around women’s role, and the collapse of the assumptions of empire, that the world moved swiftly forward to what we now know. In its wake it left deep questions about nationhood, about the appropriate use of military intervention, about what duty a country asks of its citizens, and when does national loyalty have to give way to higher laws – all of which seems extraordinarily relevant to the conflicts of our current world.
And then third, this anniversary needs to be to us a lesson in peace-making and peace-keeping. We read the story of Cain and Abel. These aren’t just two brothers who’ve fallen out. We’re told in Genesis that Cain was a tiller of the ground whilst his brother Abel was a keeper of sheep. This murder is the product of conflicting world views, warning us that human kind doesn’t live together peaceably by default. Cain is angry at a perceived injustice, and just before he slays his brother God warns him: “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you but you must master it”. We need to be wary of our congenital inability to build ways of gentleness and paths of peace, the inability we have to disagree well, to tolerate difference, and to resist making enemies of those unlike us.
When I was a child, which seems but yesterday, the eldest veterans of the First World War were still among us, then well into their eighties. Now those who served in the Second World War are that age. Some of those in our church are still parading today at the Civic Service, while others in our church are here today. Over coffee, ask them if they want to share what they did.
As well as thinking of the First World War, today we also think of the Second, particularly 70 years since the Normandy Invasion. That was a truly extraordinary event. The largest ever seaborne invasion in human history, with hundreds of thousands of service personnel engaged in the multinational campaign to liberate Europe. Like every aspect of Remembrance, D-Day in June 1944 reminds us of all the contradictions and confusions that war inevitably involves. During the Second World War there were a group of German and Austrian citizens, ten thousand people, who fought, against fascism, known collectively as ‘His Majesty’s Loyal Enemy Aliens’.
Remembrance, if it is about anything, has to be comprehensive, remembering all who fought. We’re challenged to remember with gratitude, all those died and fought – not just those citizens of these British Isles, but the Herzbergs, the Cohens and Goldbergs, the Patels, the Singhs, the Husseins and Khans, and people of many nations. And not just the Christians, but Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and people of many faiths and none.
On D-Day itself, on the bloodiest landing beach – Omaha – 1,500 US troops were killed. And as we remember them there is another group whom we must remember too. Twice that number of French civilians died on D-Day as the result of Allied actions. Such is the appalling nature of war, so great its cost, that with perverse and tragic irony, bringing liberation to the people of France involved the deaths of the very people we sought to liberate. Almost 20,000 French civilians died through allied actions in the Battle for Normandy. No wonder the French say that ‘Normandy paid the price for the Liberation of France’. We remember them. At times, war may be necessary, it may be the least bad thing to do – but it is never good.
We heard the vision of God’s ancient prophet Micah, when he gave us one of God’s pictures of hope for the future: that we should learn the ways of God, and when we do, then nations will turn weapons of war into agricultural tools – a picture the tools of destruction being transformed – to produce life-giving abundance. A place where justice reigns for all people, where no-one will need to learn the arts and sciences of war, where all will live in peace and no-one will fear anyone else.
This is why we remember. This is why we have memorials. This is what they mean. We honour those who have served, we work for the day when that is no longer necessary.