Our attention has very much been focussed on the centenary of The Great War over the last four years, and this year we are remembering especially that strange time a full hundred years ago when the guns fell silent.
I’ve always been touched by the closing shot of the film, ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’, which begins with a young battle-weary soldier leaving the remnants of the trenches following a red ribbon, gradually shedding his equipment, emerging into a sunlit English downland, stumbling past his detached womenfolk picnicking on the grass, until he lies down to face the sun. We realise he is the last soldier to die. As the camera pulls back his body fades into a lone white cross, but as the camera climbs gradually higher, thousands more crosses obliterate the scene. All this to the song sung by the dead, ‘And when they ask us, we’ll never tell them’, poignantly emphasising the unanswerable question, ‘Why?’.
Of course, the first Remembrance Day didn’t happen until 1919, when King George V inaugurated the ceremony we are so familiar with, and the then wooden Cenotaph (empty tomb), and later, the committal of the Unknown Warrior. Millions of families were left dealing with the aftermath of deaths, of severe injuries, both mental and physical, a time we don’t think about quite so much. (Try reading Juliet Nicolson’s ‘The Great Silence’, if you haven’t already done so).
This is about all of us. The Great War affected so many families that there are very few, even now, who don’t have their family folklore, and many of us, even ‘Millennials’, can remember relatives who fought in the Great War. And this may well be why there is still such a strong community involvement in Remembrance, always accentuated by Autumn leaf fall. Sally and I did our own pilgrimage to Flanders and The Somme in 2014 to remember not only a family loss (my great uncle Jack, who died aged 20 on 1 July 1916) but also many members of our families who faced the revolting carnage of the trenches, and the terrifying Battle of Jutland. We also stood at the place in Ypres where McCrae was inspired to write ‘In Flanders Fields’, the birth of the red poppy as a symbol.
We’re remembering not only vast anonymous losses, but also events that shaped and continue to shape our own lives now – reason enough to say ‘We will remember them’. But also to prompt us to think about the ‘why?’, and to see how history can help us to prevent it all happening again. And in so doing, even with this year’s emphasis on the 1918 Armistice, we remember too, that men and women from Wales, and all the UK, have continued to give their lives in conflicts which also have shaped how we live now. Those lives were given no less lightly.
We honour all their memories.
God bless you all,
Some thoughts on 1918 – 2018
Thoughts of past history are everywhere in this centenary year. To me, who grew up in the long shadow of the Great War (the “war to end all wars” we called it – and believed it!) it is hard to credit that there is no longer anyone living who fought in it, and that, in a sense, the Somme is now as remote as Waterloo. Such a dreadful carnage the Great War was; and now that the noise and the shouting have long since died, we can see how little useful purpose there was to it all. Ours is a society which is quick to blame. There have been no shortage of those who point the finger at Kaiser Wilhelm, Field Marshal Haig, economic rivalry, the Imperialist system, and goodness knows what else. But, however ingenious the historical edifice built on the ruins, the only thing that now signifies is the contemplation of the millions of dead, each and every one of them a living, breathing soul, as real as you and me.
This centenary is a time for commemoration, certainly, but not of celebration; for who would wish to celebrate man’s never-ending inhumanity to man? All we can do in this sorry world of ours, is to go on with our Christian mission of loving and giving and forgiving. So little, you may think, when hatred continues to stalk the earth, as brazen as ever. But always remember:
” No one made a greater mistake than the man who, because he saw he could do little, did nothing.” Peter Cobb