12 November 2017

2017 IS A SPECIAL YEAR FOR REMEMBERING as we commemorate the centenary of the battle of Passchendaele.     I cannot remember that battle as I am ONLY 75 years old, but I can remember meeting and knowing many surviving soldiers from it. When I was a boy at home in Hertfordshire it was a common sight to see older men in the street with a leg or arm missing, or with an unsightly wound in the head.   The English master at my Grammar School, Jimmy Irwin, had only one arm, his left one.   His right arm had been shot off in the trenches at Passchendaele.   So he could only write on the blackboard with his left hand and it was largely illegible.   But Jimmy was a wonderful teacher who didn't really need to write on the blackboard, and he taught us so much, not just about English literature, but about the First World War.   Unsurprisingly we were introduced in no uncertain way to the poets of WWI, and so I was familiar with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon from an early age.

IT WAS JIMMY IRWIN who first implanted the notion in my head that WWI was not a glorious victory but a terrible tragedy in which millions of young men and women from all across Europe and beyond were killed or left wounded and scarred for life.   Fifty years after the event he was still commenting on the futility of it all.   Yet he also acknowledged that in some strange way it was the most memorable time of his life.   A time when he had made deep friendships with his comrades – friendships which had lasted a lifetime.   And a time when he had learned how precious is the gift of human life, and what a precarious gift it is.   Each moment of life, Jimmy taught us, is an opportunity for love and the service of others.   I've never forgotten that lesson.

ANOTHER OLD SOLDIER I spoke with on many occasions was my grandfather Flack.   He had been an “old contemptible” who had fought at Mons in the early weeks of the War in August 1914.   He was wounded there and invalided out of the Army until 1916 when he was sent to the trenches on the Somme and later on to Passchendaele.   He survived there somehow because he was a crack shot and was often hidden from view so that he could be a sniper.   He was one of those people who seemed to have no fear.   After the war he became a gamekeeper, and then a poacher.   Throughout WW2 we had wonderful dinners thanks to my grandfather's shooting skills, which he had honed on the Western Front.   He would not be parted from his gun and so we buried it with him when he died in 1976.  

IN THE EARLY YEARS OF MY PRIESTLY MINISTRY – in the 1970's – I was called upon many times to conduct the Funerals of soldiers from the First World War – those who, born in the 1890's, had survived the fighting and lived a normal life span.

I sat with some of those men while they died and listened as they sometimes called out “gas”   “look out boys”   “stretcher bearers” and other words emerging from their deep memories of the First World War.   They were taken back in their dying moments to the experiences of 60 years before.

SO IN THE FIRST 35 YEARS OF MY LIFE I got to know many people who had fought in the First World War, and especially at Passchendaele.   It has led me to have a fascination for it ever since. That fascination led me to a very special visit to the WWI battlefields two years ago where I saw for myself many of the places I had heard and read about over the years.   I visited Tyne Cot War Cmetery where many of the casualties at the battle of Passchendaele are buried. It brought me to tears.   Nowadays when bodies from Passchendaele are dug up (and they still are) they are buried with reverence together. British, French and German soldiers lie beside each other, average age 19 (repeat).   Since we moved to Wakefield two months ago I've been part of a small group studying what happened to the men of Wakefield in that war.   And yesterday I counted 27 books on my bookshelf about the history, significance and literature of Passchendaele and WW1. In those books some of the men who fought in that battle speak for themselves.  

Here's Private Walter Green, aged 20, caught in the trenches

The captain came along and said “I'm sorry but we're surrounded. There's three alternatives as far as I can see: we can fight it out, a lot of us being killed, or we can lay down our arms which means we will all be captured. The only other way is EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF.   See that church over there?   If you get through we'll meet there at 12 midnight.”   I was one of the few that got through.   At 12 midnight there were 7 of us who had survived, 7 out of the 25 who had set out.

Here's Lance Corporal Cecil Withers, aged 18, on sentry duty at night

It was pitch dark and there was a chap out in No Man's Land, wounded and unable to move, calling out for his Mum. A cockney private on duty with me said “it's no good him calling out for his Mum, he won't see her no more, he's a goner.” When your mind goes back to these occasions they come up like a record in your head, you can't help it.   It makes you very bitter.   I was only 18 years old when this happened. I can still hear the voice of that dying soldier asking for his Mum.

And here's Private Harold Lawton, aged 19, taken prisoner

I was taken prisoner sitting on the side of a ditch dazed after I had been hit by shrapnel.   I was taken to a fortress behind the German lines.   It was a truly awful place.   There was only dirty water to drink and a thin soup to eat with creepy-crawlies in it.   Somehow I survived.

Those at home experienced suffering of a different kind.   Here is Vera Brittain, a nurse in WW1, aged 20, on hearing of the death of her fiance Roland Leighton

I immediately went to visit Roland's parents. They were sitting in shocked silence. Only the ticking of their clock could be heard.   On the floor beside them was a brown paper parcel they had just opened. It contained Roland's army uniform, covered in blood and mud, French mud. It was mud that smelt of mortality, death mud. In that moment, breathing in the dreadful smell of Roland's shirt and trousers, I began to understand the reality of war, of decay, the finality of death. Oh, the futility of it all !

Later Vera Brittain was to become the mother of Lady Shirley Williams, who is still speaking publicly of her mother' experiences.

The futility of which Vera spoke was present in much of Wilfred Owen's poetry.   He was killed in the last week of the War : his parents, Susan and Tom Owen, received news of his death at their home in Shrewsbury in the afternoon of Armistice Day, November 11th 1918, while the rest of England was rejoicing.   Just weeks before his death, Wilfred Owen wrote a poem called “Futility” about a dead soldier lying in the trenches

Move him into the sun                                        If anything might rouse him now

Gently its touch awoke him once                        the kind old sun will know

at home, whispering of fields half sown             was it for this the day grew tall

always it woke him, even in France                   Oh what made fatuous sunbeams tall

Until this morning and this snow                       to break earth's sleep at all


IT IS NOT SURPRISING that so many of the people caught up in WWI felt its utter futility.   They felt it so much that they prayed that it would be “the war to end all wars”.   Sadly we know that it was NOT “the war to end all wars”, and that almost as many people are engaged in warfare today as they were 100 years ago.

YET WE CAN TAKE COMFORT IN THE FACT THAT those who gave their lives in that terrible war 100 years ago, are now in God's hands.   As our first reading reminded us

the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them.   They are at peace and their hope is full of immortality.  

We enfold those killed in that war in our prayers and our love today.   Many of you here, like me, will have relatives who died at Passchendaele whom you never met but who are real to us nevertheless.

AS WE REMEMBER THEM, WE ARE BROUGHT, 100 YEARS LATER, to the need for prayer and to the ever-present need to commit ourselves to Peace.   That's why, in this service, in a few moments' time, we shall be making the Act of Commitment together.   Please turn to it now and read it silently to yourself, so that you have thought about it before you commit :

Lord God our Father / we pledge ourselves / to serve you and all humankind / in the cause of Peace / for the relief of want and suffering / and for the glory of your Name

WE MAKE THIS ACT OF COMMITMENT in the light of Jesus's words in this morning's second lesson, from the Sermon on the Mount

Blessed are the peace-makers for they will be called the children of God

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

WE GIVE THANKS for the soldiers of the Great War today because we believe that, after their torment and suffering, they live in the love of Christ, and that nothing can separate them from the God who made us all.   I hope you will join with me in giving thanks for those young men and women today, and in praying for them in their new life which lasts for ever.