I don’t know how many of you have been to see the art installation of ceramic poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London over these last few weeks. Many people have commented on how moving it is. 888,246 poppies; one for each British fatality in the First World War. The scale of the work is impressive, but so also is the fact that each one of those poppies represents an individual, someone with a name, a story, family, friends, people who mourned and missed them.
But for all its impressive scale, those poppies are really only scratching the surface of the impact of the War. It only counts those who died, and it only counts the British forces.
This was a World War, involving many nations, and it wasn’t only those who died who were affected by it. So here are some bigger numbers to think about. If we were to count the dead of all the nations who fought we’d need over 8 million poppies to include them all – that’s ten times as many, ten Tower of London moats. If we add in those who were wounded we’d need another 21 million. If we counted all those who fought – and surely no one came back untouched by what they’d seen, we would need over 65 million poppies. That’s how many troops were mobilised – 65 million.
Even then we wouldn’t be counting the women widowed, the children left fatherless, families who had to care for returning soldiers who never fully recovered physically or mentally. We wouldn’t be counting the civilians who were killed, injured or made homeless, the merchant seamen, the munitions workers whose jobs were dangerous…
This was a war that affected everyone, and its impact was long lasting; it shaped the following century in all sorts of ways. The current conflict in the Middle East has its roots in the rather arbitrary boundaries drawn after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War 1.
That’s why I called our Seal Church Remembrance project “The Long Shadow” because it seems to me that we’re still living in the “long shadow” of that conflict. I’ve been asking people to think about how the First World War affected their families, and people have responded with all sorts of stories, which you can see pinned up at the back of church. There isn’t time to tell them all, but perhaps I can give you a flavour of them. There are stories of those who fought ,like Private Leonard Holdstock, who, as he advanced towards the German lines, saw his friend cut down by machine-gun fire, calling for his mother as he died. Private Holdstock was badly wounded too, but his relative, who told the story, wrote “When he finally recovered his senses everything was quiet and as he looked around he saw a German officer with a stretcher party, looking for wounded. The officer “finished off” any wounded who were deemed “too far gone”. On seeing this he thought he’d better look more alive than he felt and dragged himself to the stump of a tree upon which he rested.
Luckily he was picked up by the stretcher party and on doing so the German officer remarked in perfect English, “Today it’s you Tommy, tomorrow it could be us”.
There are stories on the board of soldiers who won medals, like my husband’s grandfather, who won the Military Cross and Croix de Guerre, but who somehow never really settled to anything in peacetime. There are stories of men too young to enlist legally, who lied about their ages to join up. One of them, at the age of 16, was killed at the Somme. His body was never found, but his mother lit a candle every night in the window just in case he might come home. That was why I thought it was appropriate to put our candles in the windows today.
But alongside the stories of those who fought, there are the civilians’ stories too. Stories of women nursing the injured, perhaps working for the first time outside the home. Stories of women supporting from a distance, like Ann Bassett, who lived in Seal, and made over 100 shirts for soldiers during the war. She was rewarded afterwards with a basket of flowers. There are stories of civilian casualties – a draper’s assistant killed in a daylight bombing raid, something we normally associate more with the Second World War.
There are stories of men in reserved occupations, farming or fishing, and men who were not fit enough to fight. They had their own challenges to face, given white feathers in the streets by people who had no idea why they weren’t in uniform and didn’t stop to ask.
Then there were the families left without the father, brother, son or husband they loved, and those who found that the man who came back was profoundly changed, like my own grandfather whose few months at Gallipoli left emotional scars that lasted the rest of his life.
Not all the effects of the war were negative. It shook up old expectations of class and gender. For some it provided the springboard into a whole new life; we also have stories of people who had been in service, but didn’t return to that way of life. However good the change though, no one would have wanted it to come at such a cost.
Do read the stories if you get the chance, and it’s not too late to add your own. The display will stay up in church till the end of the month, and then I will put the stories in a display folder to go at the back of the church.
Our two Bible readings today came from thousands of years before the First World War, of course, but both of them could have found a place on our story board if we had been compiling it in their time, because they also speak of the individual cost of war and conflict. The first reading was the lament of David – later King David - on hearing of the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan in battle with the Philistines. David and Saul had been at loggerheads for many years – Saul was jealous of David’s popularity – but David mourned his loss anyway. He was God’s chosen king, deserving of respect. Jonathan, his son, was David’s dearest friend. When I hear service personnel talking today about war I often feel I can hear the echoes of David’s words. They speak movingly of the camaraderie they found in war, and the deep, deep wounds of losing friends who had faced battle with them. “How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished.” Death strikes so suddenly, so randomly, in times of war. It has no respect for rank or status or how well you were loved. You mourn the loss of a comrade as if it were your own, knowing that if the bullet had gone a few metres to the right or left it would have been you who died.
Our second reading, the account of the crucifixion of Jesus, might seem at first glance to have nothing to do with war at all. We are so used to thinking of the crucifixion in religious, cosmic terms that we forget its flesh and blood reality. This is the story of a young man, in his early thirties, who falls foul of an occupying army, a young man who, to them, is just another troublemaker. He has been preaching change, freedom from oppression. It is non-violent change he advocates, the love of God that welcomes and transforms all, but that’s neither here nor there to the Romans. Any change is dangerous, so they crucify him, just as they have done many others before him.. It was always going to end this way – it didn’t take any kind of genius to see that they would have to get rid of him. So he is mocked and tortured by the soldiers, nailed to a cross, as an example to those who thought things could and should be different. It is a scenario that’s been repeated throughout human history in times of war and occupation. Most of those deaths have been swallowed up into obscurity, but each one was an individual too.
For Christians though, this death is special, and has never been forgotten. That is not because Jesus suffered more than others, and it’s not because, as an innocent man, he didn’t deserve to die like this; no one deserves to die like this. It is special because we believe that in it we see God revealed in a new way, and that helps us to understand and to bear all those other deaths we witness and endure. During Jesus’ life, those who knew him had the sense that they were seeing God at work in the world, God with them, sharing their lives. The crucifixion, on the face of it, looked like the withdrawal of that blessing, a total failure. But those who had eyes to see realised that even here, in fact supremely here, God was present. It’s the Roman centurion who realises this in Mark’s account. “Surely this was the Son of God!” he says. It is his job to see that Jesus dies; he can’t turn his head away. But, forced to watch, something about the way this man dies reveals to him that God is at work even here. And the good news is that if God is present in Jesus as he goes through the darkness of death, he can also be with us when we suffer, giving us hope and strength, teaching us to live differently, bringing light in our darkness.
I mentioned earlier that story of the mother who put a candle in the window in case her soldier son might come home. We put our candles in the windows here today as a prayer for all those whose stories we remember, and those whose stories are unknown, precious individuals, whether we know their names or not. Our “Long Shadow” project has, I think, brought some of those people home who were lost in war, or just lost in time, and made us aware of them in a new way. But I pray that our candles can also remind us that in God’s love, shown in Christ the Light of the world, we can all be brought home, assured of his welcome and his presence, in war and in peace, in life and death.