Homily given by Bishop John Wilson at the Requiem Mass commemorating the centenary of the start of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) 31th July 2017 at Westminster Cathedral
If you’ve passed through Trafalgar Square in recent days you may have seen the sculpture, by the Dutch artist Damian Van Der Velden, placed there to mark the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres commonly referred to as Passchendaele.
Crafted from sand mixed with soil taken from Flanders, the sculpture depicts the figure of a First World War soldier. It’s designed to slowly disintegrate under a steady drip of water, recalling the devastation of war and, in particular, the dreadful mud swamps of Passchendaele.
The intense shelling between 31st July and 6th November 1917 churned the land between the Allied and German lines. It destroyed the natural drainage and left massive craters like scars on the face of the earth. Combined with the heaviest rains in thirty years, the battlefield became a sea of mud, swallowing up soldiers and hampering the rescue of the wounded and the recovery of the dead.
The horror of what took place was captured vividly by the war poet Siegfried Sassoon when he wrote: ‘I died in hell – They called it Passchendaele.’ He continued:
‘My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duckboards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.’
While estimates vary, there were around half a million Allied and German casualties at Passchendaele, the so-called Battle of Mud. Many soldiers were in their later teens or early twenties, a generation wiped out. And only a fraction of these were buried properly, as John McCrae described, ‘In Flanders fields’ where ‘the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row.’
The Book of Lamentations echoes what must have been the experience of so many during the desperate days of Passchendaele: ‘My soul is shut out from peace; I have forgotten happiness.’ But despite the terror and tragedy of brutal warfare, faith was far from absent. In fact, it brought a comfort like nothing else could, expressed in sentiments, again like those in Lamentations: ‘”My portion is the Lord” says my soul “and so I will hope in him.”’
To give just one example, Fr Benedict Williamson, a Benedictine monk, was a Catholic chaplain at Passchendaele. He describes visiting soldiers on the front line, in the little concrete pill-boxes where the trench mortar battery was established. He writes:
In one of these small pill-boxes…our Catholic boys assembled. The building was so low that we could not stand upright. By the light of a solitary candle, all crouching down, we sang ‘Faith of Our Fathers,’ ‘Sweet Sacrament Divine,’ and ‘Soul of My Saviour,’ and then after Benediction all the boys received Holy Communion. Shorn of every outward sign of solemnity, yet I scarcely remember a service more impressive than this, in that cramped underground vault, with the voices of the singers within punctuated with the crash of shells without.’ (Tom Johnstone and James Hagerty, The Cross on the Sword: Catholic Chaplains in the Forces)
For thousands of soldiers in the First World War, the small, specially produced copies of St John’s Gospel would have been a source of great inspiration. In them they would have read and prayed the words of Jesus we heard proclaimed: ‘Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am…I have made your name known to them…so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, so that I may be in them.’
One solider wrote to the Scripture Gift Mission:
‘When your small Testaments were distributed on the Common at Southampton I, among others, accepted one in a more derisive than a complimentary manner. I little dreamed that I should use it and find in it great consolation in lonely hours. I have learned to realise the great personality of the Saviour. When at night I have been on duty alone with Him by my side…I realised that I needed more than my own courage to stand the strain.’ (The Gospel According to St John, 100th Anniversary Edition, Scripture Gift Mission, London)
In the torment of Passchendaele the passion and resurrection of Jesus brought consolation and reassurance. In the face of terrible destruction and desolation there reigned the sign of victory over death: the Cross of Jesus Christ and his promise of eternal life. Pope Francis reminds us that when we look at the Cross of Christ we see God’s reply to violence and death: ‘violence is not answered with violence; death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue and peace is spoken.’ (Homily for the Vigil of Prayer for Peace, 7th Sep 2013)
As we look back, we remember all those who lost their lives a hundred years ago. As we look back, we seek still to learn the lessons of the futility of war. As we look back, we pledge ourselves anew to always working for reconciliation and peace over violence and death.
In this Mass we pray for everyone who was killed in the Battle of Passchendaele. May their sacrifice be caught up into the supreme sacrifice of Christ who died so that all might see and share the glory given to him by his Father.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen