We Shall Remember
Today is Remembrance Sunday. Today, acts of worship are taking place throughout the land, in churches and chapels, round Cenotaph and war memorial, in city and in village. Parades are being held, the silence for recollection and prayer descends. Formal, almost stylistic acts of grief and sorrow are enacted. The two so-called Great Wars – though in truth there is nothing great about war – are history rather than episodes in the lives of an increasing number of the population. We who grow old will remember them, but for many it is a handed down memory of deeds, valour, suffering and tragedy, rather than one of personal reminiscence.
The origin of Remembrance Sunday is with what was Armistice Day; the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month that saw the conclusion of the First World War. That war was optimistically, and as it proved, mistakenly, referred to as the war to end all wars.
There are now a minority of the population who recall the two wars from personal memory; even fewer from participation in those horrendous battles of 1914 to 1918. No one under seventy eight years of age was even born before the first world war ended. Any surviving combatants must be well over ninety. There are more of us who have memories and experiences of the conflict of 1939 to 1945. But the Second World War did not, no more than the first one, prove to be a war to end all wars.
Troops from our own country have since then been involved in Malaya, Korea, Belise, the Falklands and several other places, not to mention the so called “troubles” in Northern Ireland. Five years ago a short but bloody battle was fought in Iraq.
Soldiers and civilians from many lands continue to be victims of war. Merciless carnage, even as I speak, takes place in many parts of the world. During the last few days many of us have been shocked by terrible pictures on our television screens of slaughter in central Africa, unbelievable cruelty inflicted upon even the children. Peace has a hollow ring to many people throughout the world. Armistices and cease-fires are signed from time to time. But an armistice is but a step on the road to peace. True peace is as yet an elusive goal for the many who suffer.
I remember well the start of the Second World War. I sat in Church that September Sunday morning in 1939, my father taking the service which started at 10.30. Following the invasion of Poland, an ultimatum had been given to Germany which expired at 11.00. Soon after eleven, a member of the congregation who had slipped out to listen to the wireless, came back and signalled to my father that war had been declared, and he announced this from the pulpit.
It was a bitter blow to him, for he was a life-long pacifist, and had suffered as such in the First World War. Years were to pass, and many casualties among civilians as well as troops were to be sustained from that Sunday onwards, before peace was to reign again. Young men and women, as well as some not so young, in that congregation left over the months and years that followed to don uniforms. Some did not return.
Remembrance Sunday is an occasion when collective memory is built up from numerous personal memories. Mine are of young men, colleagues and play friends, who went to war after September 1939, and lost their lives. The young pilot who was shot down before the war had hardly begun dropping leaflets over Germany; the local solicitor’s only son who was lost, presumed drowned, from an aircraft carrier; the young rear-gunner with whom I shared air warden duties, who survived only two trips on raids over Europe before being killed; my mother’s cousin dying in a tank at Dunkirk; the school friend struck down in Normandy following D-Day; another friend who survived Arctic convoys to Russia but whose health was so damaged that he died soon after peace was declared.
Our memories naturally are personal, but grief and pain are universal. My memories, and your memories are replicated not only nation-wide, but world-wide. As a member of the forces I worked mostly in army hospitals. Not only British troops came into hospital beds. Young Germans and Italians came, sometimes to die. The grief of their families, our enemies as we had to regard them, was without doubt as acute as the grief experienced by allied families.
Once during an air-raid I saw a fiery ball falling from the sky. It was a German aircraft which had been hit by anti-aircraft fire. I thought of the crew probably trapped in the blazing plane falling to their death. Families in Germany would mourn, just as families I knew mourned our dead. It all seemed so desperately sad and futile. Young lives from many countries prematurely ended.
Remembrance Sunday, though it has special meaning for those whose memory includes their own experiences, is more comprehensive than that. Known relatives or friends who paid the price of war with their lives or their health, or through personal suffering may be in the thoughts of some of us. But it is also an opportunity for every-one, young and old, to reflect on the obscenity of war itself.
Some speak lightly of war, using terms like war games. Surely they can have no imagination, or no understanding of what war means. For war is no game. True, there is a comradeship in adversity which is remembered and cherished. Individuals show courage, and make sacrifices for others. But war itself breeds that which is in direct contradiction to what we call Christian values.
The values are not unique to Christianity; they are shared by other great religions. But these qualities are denied or suppressed in armed conflict. Instead of love, war preaches hatred; in place of the sanctity of life, war revels in the ability to kill; lies and deceit are justified; building and reclamation is overtaken by wanton destruction; accord becomes coercion; fear takes the place of tranquillity; what would be rightly labelled as a crime at any other time becomes lauded as a deed of valour. The good soldier is he who kills or maims the greatest number. And increasingly the largest casualties are not among the uniformed men and women, but of innocent civilians of all ages and both sexes.
I do not know whether war is avoidable in any circumstance, or is simply inevitable. If I have not been able to embrace pacifism it is because of other evils which exists in the world. Evils of oppression, massacres of minorities, and cruelty run rife as in the camps of Belsen. Those unspeakable acts since matched in other camps in other countries. But war is so horrific, that it must be a final, desperate last resort.
One consoling thought is that even bitter enmities nourished by war do not last for ever. A good friend of mine was able to entertain for two weeks a party of Japanese in her home for a fortnight a few years ago, and to pay a reciprocal visit to an ordinary Japanese home, living with the family and enjoying generous and kindly hospitality. Immediately after the end of 1945 such visits would have been unimaginable. Similarly, friendship and interchange between European citizens once sworn enemies are commonplace today. Bitter memories can be and are being put aside.
Scarring as are the experiences of war, one message becomes clear as time passes. It is that is hatred and destruction are transitory. As Paul reminds us, it is faith, hope and love which abide.
What stops most of us committing such crimes as murder, burglary, theft, rape, child molesting and the like is not fear of the law as such, but a sense of right and wrong, a respect for others. Laws in themselves are insufficient to protect and control, it is the goodness, contrasted with the wickedness, of individuals, which ultimately determines how peaceable is our existence.
Similarly war may deal with an immediate crisis. It may free a subject people, it may deter a tyrant: but true peace comes not because of deterrents or through imposition by armed force. It comes because nation wishes to live at peace with neighbour.
The bulk of people are, in spite of our sometime pessimistic anxieties, law-abiding, peace-loving folk, who would be so whether or not the laws were harsh or lenient. They have no wish to covet from neighbour, to steal or to murder. When the nations of the world and the men and women who rule them are similarly so minded, then perhaps war will cease.
But the goodness that lies within individuals and nations needs to be nurtured and fed. It is nurtured by worship, and it is fed by prayer. Nations will not be righteous unless people are righteous. Nations are made up of individuals like us. Unless we are ourselves peace-loving, neighbour-loving, God-loving, then we cannot expect the world to be so. The easy thing to say is that we are but one, and therefore give up. But that was not the answer the early Christians gave, and many more who followed them.
It is not the answer that many we remember today, from many lands and in many generations, would want us to give. Too many lives have ended prematurely through strife and war. Many more I fear will be lost in the future. But if this carnage is ever to end it can only be because goodness has finally triumphed through the constancy of men and women of, to use the old phrase, good faith.
A favourite hymn of mine is by Horatius Bonar, a Free Scottish minister in the last century – “They live the longest who live well..”. Two couplets from that hymn come to mind.
“Sow truth, if thou the true wouldst reap;
Who sows the false shall reap the vain;”
“Sow love, and taste its fruitage pure;
Sow peace and reap its harvest bright;”
Our thought for today and every day is in the two commandments of love. The sustaining of these is our best hope of peace.
It is the debt we ought to pay to those of all ages, from every land, whose lives have been curtailed by war. We repeat, “We Shall Remember Them”.
C.J. Rosling 12 November 1994
Hucklow 13 November 1994
Mexborough 13 November 1994