War is about real people

A sermon by Revd Will Morris

Readings for this service: Amos 5. 18-24, 1 Thess. 4. 13-end, Matthew 25. 1-13

My grandfather wasn’t a hero, he didn’t hate foreigners, and he wasn’t a psychopath. But on 5th October, 1915, the day after his 21st birthday, he signed up as a private in the Queen’s Westminster Rifles to fight in the First World War. He was typical of the thousands upon thousands of men who volunteered in those early years of that war. He was a bank clerk in London, he was the son of a Welsh Congregationalist minister, and he was a citizen whose country had told him that they needed him. After several months of training he joined his battalion in the field in September 1916. Two months earlier, on 1st July, the Queen’s Westminster’s had fought at Gommecourt on the first day of the battle of the Somme. By nightfall on the 1st, of the 750 officers and men of the battalion who had gone into battle, 600 were dead, missing or wounded. Over the course of the next two years and two months, my grandfather fought with those survivors at Ypres and on the Somme. And he himself survived Passchendaele, Cambrai, Arras and so many other names in that geography of death and destruction that broke the hearts of a generation.

In February 1919 he came home, was demobilized, and settled back into his former life. He never really talked about the war again, and, only occasionally, when he complained of the after-effects of being gassed, did his family get even glimpses of what he had experienced. He died 45 years ago, and the number of people who knew him even as an old man are now very few. And yet today, as we do every year, we come together to remember that war and others since. But what does it mean to remember a war which those who fought in seemed loath to remember, and when they themselves, in any event, are now long gone?

It’s an important question because there is a danger that our remembrance becomes simply a cost-free piece of self-indulgence. An occasion of national self-centeredness. Something which is fashioned by, and focused solely on us, in the present moment. Yes, we may talk of nobility, of sacrifice, of laying down one’s life for one’s friends. Yes, we may wear, sometimes a little ostentatiously, poppies reflecting those that grew on the battlefields of Flanders. Yes, we may listen to a spine-tingling rendering of the Last Post. And, yes, in response to Lawrence Binyon’s evocative words, we may solemnly intone: ‘We will remember them.’ And yet, who, or what, are we remembering? Not an individual, not any price we have had to pay, not any pain or any loss that we ourselves feel. It runs the risk of becoming a comfortable, cost-free and slightly hollow ritual.

So, what’s the alternative? What could give deeper meaning to our act of remembrance? Well, let me step sideways for a moment, and remind you that every week we come together here to remember another sacrifice, to celebrate another life, and to recall another violent death. We articulate it in the creed, we reenact it in the Eucharistic prayer, and we participate in it by taking communion. And, yet. This, too, can become a ritual celebrating who we are, a ritual that focuses on us. And it can become nothing more profound than an agreeable performance of music, liturgy and word. It can become divorced from the purpose of that sacrifice, divorced from the cost of that sacrifice, and, most importantly, divorced from any understanding that human violence – the violence inside us – both provoked and perpetrated that sacrifice.

But if those events (the fact and the circumstances of Jesus’s death) can in some way remain for us living events – something that we really feel, not just intellectually know about – then we can bring back into the Eucharist the full promise of the Cross. Out of that broken body was born the promise of restored creation; out of the desolation of the cross came the promise of rebirth in resurrection; and out of that violent death came the promise of redemption and with it the hope that we might be able to control our own violence. So if we can truly remember those historical events of 2,000 years ago, then today as we consume bread and wine, the symbols of both that violence and that promise, the Eucharist ceases to be simply a ritual with us at its centre.

So, how can we carry that over to Remembrance Sunday? The answer I think, as with the life and death of Jesus, lies in remembering with particularity the events of the past – not abstractly but concretely – and then overlaying those events upon the events of today. What do I mean by that? Well, we do need to remember that war is horrendous. We do need to remember that the violence of war comes from something inside of us. But alongside those slightly abstract ideas – and to give them emotional and motivating force – we also need crucially to remember that war always has been and always will be fought by real people, by individuals who pay a real price.

So how do we hold these two sets of things – one abstract and the other concrete – together? During his two and a half years in France my grandfather wrote frequent letters to his parents and to his sisters. They are not full of tales of his bravery and courage, nor are they filled with burning hatred for the enemy. They are the letters of a very ordinary man, trying to get by in extraordinary circumstances – and they reflect both. In October 1916, just after he’s arrived, he writes from France: “Thanks very much for the [food] parcel. The cake was again broken and was rather strongly tainted with camphor, [but] the cheese was alright and was enjoyed.” In September 1917, after thanking his family for sending some more socks and handkerchiefs, he writes a little wryly: “We are doing another turn in the trenches and I am … enjoying it as well as you can enjoy yourself in the line.” On Boxing Day 1917, however, he writes from what he describes as “scene of great desolation where everything is in ruins” about a friend who’s been killed: “It must have been an awful blow to his mother. This war is taking a dreadful toll of the best.” And in October 1918, 3 years after joining up, his tiredness and unhappiness show through as he writes: “We have had a very rotten time … I am so absolutely fed up with this life and its discomforts.” And it is the fact that these letters – even when describing extraordinary things – are so normal, so ordinary, so human that moves me profoundly. Like the Gospel with their stories of Jesus, these letters are the memory of a real person, not a construct of our imagination. And in the same way that we can only truly understand what happened to Jesus 2,000 years ago and its importance for us today if we appreciate that a real, living, breathing human being was nailed to a cross in Jerusalem; so it is that we can only truly understand what happened 100 years ago and its importance for us today if we appreciate that it was real, living, breathing human beings that fought and often died in France.

Writing about the beginning of the battle of Passchendaele, where the battalion fought in August 1917, the official historian – a man not given to hyperbole – wrote the following:

Men stepping off tracks, or attempting to move across country, were held fast in the grip of the mud or sank slowly to their death, while overhead a never-ending stream of shells shrieked through the air to scatter pain and death as they burst. The reader may give full rein to his imagination when he thinks of the experiences of the men who took part in this battle, but unless he had been there he could not conjure up a picture worse than the reality.

Our task of remembrance today is to get as close as to that reality as we can. Firstly to honour what they endured. But also so that our remembrance of that horror is so intense and so vivid that we are much less tempted to give into to our own violence today and send others off to war.

I come closest to imagining that reality, to feeling the horror and the violence of that battle – and what it tells me about the present – when I hold these scraps of paper in my hand. Because it is then that I truly remember, truly understand, that the men like my grandfather who fought in that mud were very real people. And when I remember that, it may temper the violence within me that will be the cause of future wars. Because I will remember, and understand, that those we call upon to fight today, are just as real, just as ordinary, just as human, just as vulnerable, and just as precious as my grandfather and millions like him were 100 years ago.