Sunday, 12 November 2017

Remembrance Sunday Remembered

Remembrance Sunday Remembered

"I believe that my people in every part of the Empire fervently wish to perpetuate the memory of that Great Deliverance, and of those who laid down their lives to achieve it. To afford an opportunity for the universal expression of this feeling it is my desire and hope that at the hour when the Armistice came into force ... there may be, for the brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activities. During that time, except in the rare cases where this may be impractical, all work, all sound, and all locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the Glorious Dead." -- George V

Owen Chadwick, writing on the origins of armistice day (which the King initially was not that enthusiastic about), note that in 1919

“in London, at least, it was voted a moving experience. Trains halted, stockbrokers paused in their bargains, judges and attorneys silenced their mouths, buses drew to the roadside and driver, conductor, and passengers got out and stood on the kerb, not a car moved in the London streets, shop assistants did not serve and customers did not expect it, pilots switched off their aircraft engines where it was safe to do so, women knelt in the streets of Ramsgate, express trains due to leave at 11 a.m. left at 11.05 a.m., hospitals arranged that operations should not be in progress. There was an odd strike or two where an employer did not stop his machines. London on 1 I November 1919 reminded one observer of the petrified city of Pompeii. Every warship at sea stopped its engine and its crew stood to attention.”

As time moved on, Reverend James Reid, in 1935, gave a sermon entitled “The Church and Peace” which shows how strong the support for peace was against another war (which was looming) . This is a very different perspective.

“For the War did teach us something-then. Seventeen years ago the message of it shone out crystal clear against the smoke of battle, and as the years went by, it was printed deep on some of our hearts. The danger is that as time passes, for some of us, and perhaps more especially for the younger generation, these lessons tend to be for gotten, and because they are forgotten there is peril. We begin to talk about war, to think about war, to plan our national policy in terms of possible war, to doubt the possibility of getting rid of it...”

“And so, bit by bit, the defences of our souls against the catastrophe of war are worn down, and we are once more at the mercy of primitive fears and passions. That is the danger to-day. It is that we forget the past and let its message slip. The man who forgets the past and all we learned in those dark and shuddering days is not fit to meet the future. When one hears some people talk about war, one wonders if God can teach them anything. We are thinking to-day of the men who died. Every name means a grave in some heart or hearts, a scar that will never fade. “

The scars ran deep, and the Peace Pledge Union had been formed 1934 by Dick Sheppard, canon of St Paul's Cathedral. War was seen as a horror to be avoided, but the price of peace with Hitler was too high, and the country went to war once more.

Charles Smyth gave a sermon “Thoughts on an Armistice”. This was preached before the University of Oxford on Remembrance Sunday, November 9, 1941 and shows the sea change in opinion:

“At the simple service in St Margaret's, Westminster, to which the members of both Houses of Parliament adjourned to offer their thanksgiving to Almighty God, he read the Lesson. It was from the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah, and two verses of it in particular, said The Times, moved the congregation profoundly. "He hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound. . .. They shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities." But-Nisi Dominus edificet: Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it. Those high and generous hopes were hopes engendered in war-weariness; and by war-weariness they were frustrated and betrayed.”

“Fortunately, in this respect, our motives in declaring war on Germany in 1939 were, on the whole, so realistic, and the conflict upon which we are engaged is so nakedly a struggle for self-preservation, that there has been less temptation-and less opportunity-than there was twenty-five years ago for the secular idealists to sell it to the public as a holy war, or with an almost indecent precipitancy to write it off after the termination of hostilities as damaged stock. So far as public opinion is concerned,' our entry into the war of 1914-18 because Germany had violated the neutrality of Belgium was a far more altruistic business; and precisely for that reason it was far more difficult as the war continued, and after it was over, to maintain our sense of balance and proportion. “

By 1965, the Second World War had been over for 20 years, and Ronald Coppin looked back in an article entitled “Remembrance Sunday”. He sounded a cautious note about how the commemoration, over time, had become almost routine as a ritual, without looking at the harder issues of war.

“The Times exposes one of the great differences between the two wars: the 1914-18 War was like previous wars in that it was fought abroad; and, as in other wars, civilians were on the whole safe, while the servicemen fought on their behalf: thus a debt was owed by the non-combatants to the fighters, but for the first time these were not just professional soldiers but ordinary men who had died fighting.”

“Like the concentration camps, war should remind us not only of the courage and heroism of the few, of the degradation of the many, of the brutality of the others, but also of that potentiality for good which lies deeply embedded in a propensity for evil within ourselves, from which we need to be redeemed. The present form of observance makes it all too easy to focus attention away from ourselves and to bathe the whole thing in a warm romantic glow.”

Peter Chave’s sermon “Remembrance Day” from 1982 is written at a time when the Cold War was heating up again, and a Third World War, waged with Nuclear weapons, was like a dark storm cloud, hanging over the land.

“The church has tried to make a difference between the sort of war which is a ’smash and grab’ raid on another country, or a bad-tempered act of revenge, and the so-called ’Just War’. In the ’Just War’ the cause has to be right and sufficient: as in the Second World War, the necessity to stop Hitler and his partners in crime. Those whom we remember today had that end in mind. They did not fight to steal territory or money from others.”

“They fought to stop Europe and the world falling under the Fascist yoke. They did not want the police state, the reign of terror and the concentration camps here. They went to war - solely for the sake of the peace that would follow. And as well as preserving our freedom the Allied victory brought freedom back to our ’enemies’ - Germany, Italy, Japan – who were liberated from their dictatorial rulers”

But then he goes on to look at the corrupting influence of war upon even those whose cause is noble and just:

“Hitler’s air raids on Coventry, Plymouth and London were deliberate attempts to destroy British morale by large-scale killing of civilians. They were condemned as flagrant breaches of the rules of war. But in 1945 the Allies did much the same with the fire-bombing of Dresden and the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The defence which Hitler, Truman and Churchill alike would have made is the same as Napoleon’s: War is not a game. If we are to win we must hit hard. In the end – by shortening the war - lives will be saved.”

And he concludes with a plea for better negotiations for peace, and the opportunity to use valuable resources taken by the Cold War to better use:

“I think we should start getting over to our leaders a strong message in the following terms: (i) War is an atrocious way to solve any problem. Do not use it, or the threat of it, as anything but a very last resort. In short, cut out ’sabre-rattling’. The highest degree of responsibility is what we expect from those with their finger on the nuclear button. (ii) The nuclear dimension changes the war equation. No one can win a nuclear war. Let’s back down then from nuclear confrontation... .... (iii) . Cut down on arms because they cost so much while millions are dying of hunger. It is said that the production of five fewer nuclear submarines could provide the finance to stop the deaths of the 30 million due to die of hunger in 1982.”

The general mood in the 1970s onwards grew that the day would die away. No longer celebrated on the 11th day, it was now on the “Remembrance Sunday” closest to that. As Chadwick notes, that Remembrance Sunday had made the day more religious and specifically Christian, and he thinks it will wither away as the last war recedes:

“There is little doubt that by the law of history the commemoration of Remembrance Sunday will slowly die in emotion until the day is celebrated only in corners of the world. A man may be sorry that that will happen, and may reasonably hope that it will not happen too instantly, for a number of reasons”

The importance of the individual story has changed how we perceive remembrance. M.J. Ward writing in 2002, noted that part of the decline was the way in which the stories had been lost:

“How easy it becomes on Remembrance Sunday to count the fallen as just so many poppy leaves in the Albert Hall. How often have we wanted to shout out from the rooftop of our unnumbered houses there are real people behind the numbers, you, and me, our families? The French theologian who served as a stretcher bearer in the 1914-1918 war, Gabriel Marcel, spoke out against what he called technolatry: the dehumanization of flesh and blood to arithmetical symbols, numbers on a computer with no feelings, no past, no heartbeat, no face.”

“Ultimately, we want people to treat us as people, not numbers. So it is with those we remember today: the fallen of two wars and other conflicts who become numbers to the generations that did not know them. It’s hard to shed tears over a statistic.”

After the events of the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, keeping the peace in Bosnia, and the deaths of young servicemen, there was a sea change. Once again, war had become personal. I myself know someone who lost a grandson in Afghanistan.

In 2011, Alison Hennegan gave a sermon preached in the Chapel of Trinity Hall, Cambridge:

“Over recent years, we have seen resurgence, an increasing ‘popularity’ if I may put it that way, for the outward signs of national remembering. Not so long ago, the observance of the Two Minute Silence on 11 November itself, at 11 a.m., the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, had been almost universally abandoned in Britain. Instead, the Two Minute silence was mainly reserved for Remembrance Sunday. Whether or not The Sun newspaper is right in insisting that it was its campaign to reinstate it which saw its return, it is nevertheless the case that, now, on 11 November itself, railway stations, banks, some big retail chains, routinely ‘invite’ passengers and customers, to ‘join the staff’ by remaining silent, and many do.”

“For the last ten or fifteen years, British troops have again become fighting forces, deployed in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and many have died or been maimed. Their numbers are tiny in contrast with the casualties of the World Wars – but then, as Christopher Isherwood once said to someone questioning whether it was really as many as six million Jews who had perished in the Holocaust, ‘What is it with you? What are you into – Real Estate?’”

The recent wars have seen resurgence in war poetry. Less are dying than in the First or Second World Wars, but the loss can still be raw, and their voices are being heard again. Here is one by Phil Williams, from 2009:

My pain feels cold and selfish
My anguish very small
My reality insignificant
Compared to ones that fall
Young men with broken bodies
Their Comrades lie in sacks
Devastated parents
Their sons will not come back.

My pain will ease and lessen
My anguish slip away
Reality in Afghanistan
Two brave men died today
Young men with shell shocked faces
Growing old before their time
Are living breathing testament
To this shallow pain of mine.

The war poets are heard again, and while war will never now be as unambiguous as seen in the past, we can still listen to their voices, and still see the tears of war.

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