Given at the Remembrance Sunday Service at All Saints' Church, Hertford on 8 November 2015.
My grandfather who was born in Preston was sent to France in 1916 with the Lancashire Regiment and was gassed after a few months in July 1917. I have a small photograph and a few lines which appeared in the Lancashire Evening Post in 1917. He was then invalided back to Hinckley in Leicestershire where there was a convalescent hospital for soldiers. He never spoke about the war, but as a child I remember that he suffered from severe bronchitis every winter and that my grandmother spoke of the recurrent nightmares which had plagued him. We know he was sent to an Auxiliary Hospital run by a Voluntary Aid Detachment near Hinckley because it was there he met Agnes, whom he later married and was my grandmother. Both came from strongly Catholic families and before he died in his eighties he gave me his long set of rosary beads which he told me he had worn around his neck in France. I often think of the many prayers he must have offered meditating on the mysteries of Christ’s life, especially his passion and death on the cross, and the importance of his Christian faith in the midst of the horror, noise and violence of the battlefield.
There are so many elements in his life which are repeated and find echoes in our own lives as we gather here in Hertford this morning and remember the fallen in conflict and particularly in the two world wars. Firstly the way in which families and communities were utterly changed. The village war memorials which bear the names from the First World War tell the story of the death of young soldiers which left the scar of an emptiness and loss in their local families and communities for ever. The meeting of my grandparents in the Auxiliary Hospital, probably through the outreach of the Church or the voluntary work associated with the Red Cross, was repeated as local families sought to help the soldiers who were injured and recovering from their wounds, either physical or mental. Today it is hard to recall the extent of the work of volunteers, the change in women’s work, and the effect of the Red Cross across three thousand auxiliary hospitals in the British Isles.
Another important element in his life is the story of the strength given by Christian faith and by other faiths as soldiers served from across the countries of the Empire and later the Commonwealth. This story is repeated again and again in the lives of the soldiers who prayed, read their holy books and relied upon the support of the chaplains who were present amongst them and offered consolation and hope in the midst of injury and death. Their presence brought great solace to many soldiers as they lay dying and passed over to another life. That important work continues today through the ministry of chaplains in serving the Forces and their families.
The first reading from the Book of Wisdom speaks of the hope of eternal life since ‘the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God and no torment will ever touch them’ and gives us hope that the sacrifice of suffering for the good of others will be vindicated and blessed. Injustice, violence and conflict never have the final word in a world where Christian hope is proclaimed. The victory of Christ over death offers the vision of a world where justice is proclaimed, tears are wiped away and peace will reign. As we heard in the reading, ‘Those who trust in him will understand truth, the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect’.
This promise inspires and gives courage to continue to defeat injustice and violence and protect the rights of freedom and truth. It also demands commitment and dedication, because of the fallen nature of the human condition, from men and women who continue to serve in the Armed Forces whom we recognise and pray for today. The Gospel Reading from St. John speaks of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross out of love for the human family so that all might be saved. The mystery of transforming sacrifice is sown in the image of the seed that falls into the ground to produce abundant fruit and so the sacrifice of many in war and conflict seeks to help bring about justice and peace.
Today we honour the sacrifice and service of those whom we remember who have fallen in conflicts. From across the centuries the words of St. Augustine of Hippo of the fourth century remind me that whilst it is at times necessary to wage war to restore justice and protect peoples, war is always to be lamented because of the misery which it brings to so many people in the cause of peace. He writes, ‘Surely, if a wise man remembers that he is a human being, he will rather lament the fact that he is faced with the necessity of waging just wars;… For it is the injustice of the opposing side that lays on the wise man the duty of waging wars; and this injustice is assuredly to be deplored by a human being,… And so everyone who reflects with sorrow on such grievous evils, in all their horror and cruelty, must acknowledge the misery of them. And yet a man who experiences such evils, or even thinks about them, without heartfelt grief, is assuredly in a far more pitiable condition, if he thinks himself happy simply because he has lost all human feeling.’
It is with a sense of gratitude for freedom, justice and peace that we remember and pray for those who have fallen in war, pray for those members of the Armed Forces involved in present conflicts and continue to beseech God for the gift of peace in a broken world.
Bishop John Sherrington