This is a copy of my address given at the service of Commemoration and Dedication of the Headstone of Arthur Charles Argent on Saturday 22 June 2019 at Saint Mary the Virgin, Little Burstead. Billericay.
Charles lived in a very different time to ours. We can only imagine the tranquil, slow pace of life here in Little Burstead compared with the brutality of life in the trenches. Yet many of Charles’ generation willingly volunteered to serve King and Country. And, whilst Charles may not have died on the battlefield, there’s no doubt he died as a result of the injuries he sustained.
Charles, it seems to me, represents the many who were laid to rest in graves with headstones marked Unknown Soldier or Known Unto God. The phrase Known Unto God (taken from Acts 15:18) forms the standard epitaph for all unidentified soldiers of WW1 buried in Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries. Some 80,000 in Flanders alone.
It’s a sobering thought to be reminded that WW1 saw a soldier dying every 15 seconds. A total of 10 million in all – 888,246 of them British soldiers. Not forgetting, of course, the 7 million civilians who died and an unbelievable 23 million wounded.
These are shocking and sobering statistics.
Could God not have overruled all the hate in human hearts? Could he not have intervened to prevent every sadness and sorrow and suffering of the soul?
He could, of course.
The God who created everything from nothing, and who raised his Son from the dead, isn’t powerless in the face of his creation – but he gave the human race the choice of how to live and how to use the knowledge he has given us. We can’t always blame God for the hatred in people’s hearts and the decisions they make to beat the drums of war.
Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy M.C. is one of the most well-known of all the Army Chaplains of WW1 – he was known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ because of his tendency to give a Woodbine Cigarette to soldiers as they lay dying. He was discharged early in 1919, around the same time as Charles.
However, by that time Studdert Kennedy was a changed man. His experiences in the trenches had left him deeply scarred – along with many others. Before the war he advocated that men should go and fight for their loved ones, and their country, but after the war he spent the remainder of his life campaigning for peace.
He also wrote poetry – trying to put into words the things he had seen and what he felt. One is entitled Waste
Waste of muscle, waste of brain,
Waste of patience, waste of pain,
Waste of manhood, waste of health,
Waste of beauty, waste of wealth,
Waste of blood, waste of tears,
Waste of youth’s most precious years,
Waste of ways the saints have trod,
Waste of glory, waste of God – war!
Studdert Kennedy firmly believed that the suffering of war – was uniquely to be found in Jesus. The Gospel, he said, embraced suffering, pain and despair.
He preached that it’s possible to find a peculiar closeness to God through the horror and suffering of war. He began to understand the great theme of the Bible of how God brings hope, not in spite of, but through suffering, just as Jesus saved us not in spite of, but through, what he suffered on the cross. This is the context of Jesus’ words to his disciples from John 14: Let not your hearts be troubled. Ye believe in God, believe also in me.
A few years ago, I went to Chelmsford Cathedral to hear General Lord Richard Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff, talking about some of his experiences on the battlefields of Europe. He said something quite remarkable, and something that I’ve never forgotten, when he said: “There are no atheists on the battlefield! Soldiers have faith in Jesus.”
And that would have been true for Charles. He would have held onto the promises of Jesus when he said he was The Way to God, bringing direction in a lost world; he would have believed that Jesus was The Truth bringing answers to the many questions about life and death. He would have also believed that Jesus was The Life bringing purpose in this world and hope for the world to come.
I watched a film recently called Ironclad about what took place in England in the 12C after King John signed the Magna Carta and how he went about to wreak revenge against the Barons, and Bishops, who conspired against him. It also tells of the role the Knights Templar took in the rebellion against the king. In the film, one of the Knights Templar made, what I thought was a profound statement:
It is not a noble thing to take the life of someone, but it is a noble thing to take the life of someone to defend the freedom of another person.
It is a noble thing to give one’s life to defend the freedom of another person.
Jesus said: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”
It’s right that, as Christians, we remember Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. It’s right that we honour Charles for his service to King and country. And it is right that we remember the 7 m illion civilians and 10 million soldiers who died, and the 888,246 British soldiers who gave their lives so that we may live in peace and freedom.
They shall grow not old, as we who are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
You can download a copy of the service sheet here Argent (Arthur Charles) Dedication A service like this is once in a lifetime and there’s no template from which to start. Karen and I sat down and put something together. A number of people have commented that we ‘got it just right’ which is very pleasing to know.