This sermon was preached at Saint Mary Magdalen, Billericay on 16 October 2021 to commemorate the Centenary of the Unveiling and Dedication of the Billericay Public War Memorial and to remember the 62 men and boys whose names are inscribed on the memorial. A copy of the service sheet can be viewed/downloaded at the bottom of this post.
Today marks the Centenary of the Unveiling and Dedication of the Billericay Public War Memorial on 16 October 1921 and this service is taking place at 3.00 pm, the same time as the service took place 100 years ago. And what a privilege it is for me to take part in this unique event, and I’m sure that’s true for each one of us here today.
Billericay, in 1914, was a compact village of about 2000 inhabitants. There was a total of 54 premises from the top to the bottom of the High Street (Reid’s to the railway) including Houses, Shops, Pubs, a Bank, Post Office, Police station, two Blacksmiths, an Undertakers, a School and a Church. We can only imagine the tranquil, slow pace of life here compared with the brutality of life in the trenches. Yet many of that generation willingly volunteered to serve King and Country.
In her book ‘Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, Ritual, Memory and God’ Rachel Mann describes the First World War as
A people’s war, a civilian’s war, a local war. Whole streets and communities joined en masse, moved by the call of their neighbour, of Country and King … There was so much death that postmen and post-boys gave up their jobs because they couldn’t bear to be the bearers of bad news to families.
And then there was the silence of those who did return but couldn’t speak of the horrors they had experienced – we now recognise this as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) but it was called cowardice in those days.
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, 7 million civilians and an unbelievable 23 million wounded. These are shocking and sobering statistics indeed.
With the incomprehensible loss of life of that Great War, communities were never the same again. Often because their loved ones had signed up with their friends together. They were referred to as ‘The Lost Generation’ those men and boys who never returned home to talk and joke, to live and breathe.
There are over 2,500 War Memorials across the UK and these take many forms: Soldiers, Sculptures and in some places the war was commemorated by dedicating Parks and Gardens, Village Halls, Tree Planting, Church Lychgates and Playing Fields. It’s interesting that a Cross was chosen by the Billericay District for their War Memorial.
Rev S. L. Brown, Rural Dean and Rector of Fryerning said at the dedication:
What words could not express they had tried to express in that memorial cross. They had done well, for by erecting that memorial they had made certain that those men would not be forgotten, and that when they themselves had gone to join them beyond the veil the memory of those men would be forever hallowed for centuries after in the place they loved.
When we look at the dreadful cost of war and the sacrifices made by so many, we wonder if we can truly believe, as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, that the Cross was where all of God’s work was done, once and for all.
Jesus’ words from John 15 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends speak to us afresh on a day like today. It also speaks to us about the responsibility we have as a community, and a nation, to be men and women of reconciliation and peace in the world, if we are to be shaped around that self-offering and generous love of Jesus.
First World War poets such as Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon were able, through whose prose and poetry, to humanise and talk about the war, as a whole generation attempted to process the incomprehensible.
Wilfred Owen, who died just a week before Armistice Day, and whose parents received the news, just as the bells were ringing out to celebrate the peace had, as contemporary poet Michael Symmons Roberts describes, ‘an abiding sense of passionate tenderness for the soldiers he sees around him, on both sides, and deeply critical anger at what has brought them to this point.’ He wrestles with God and the Christ he sees is in ‘no man’s land’. In a letter to Osbert Sitwell in July he writes:
For 14 hours yesterday I was at work – teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirsts until after the last halt; I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet to see that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb and stands to attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver, I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.
This is the raw emotion of someone who lived with the horrors of that war and wrestled to seek and know Christ by their side. Wilfred Owen is digging deep into the mud of his awful experiences, to meet the one who gave his life, once and for all, to save the world, from sin and from the horrors of war.
In the depths, we discover, he gives us words to speak – of healing and forgiveness, and the knowledge that in Christ death is not the end, and love, not violence is the final word.
God can take all our raging and bitterness and, in the resurrection, shows us the way to peace, the hard won, costly peace of the sacrifice of his Son, who faced war, but didn’t respond with retribution and retaliation, but with mercy and forgiveness and love and shows us a way to be fully human.
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. His experiences in the trenches had left him deeply scarred. Before the war he advocated 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.
Woodbine Willie firmly believed that the suffering of war – and the suffering of the depression – were uniquely met in Jesus. The Gospel he preached, embraced suffering, pain, and despair.
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. He preached that it’s possible to find a peculiar closeness to God through the horror and suffering of war.
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.
- Faith in the one who said he was The Way to God, bringing direction in a lost world.
- Faith in the one who said he was The Truth bringing answers to the many questions about life and death.
- Faith in the one who said he was The Life bringing purpose in this world and hope for the world to come.
In recent times, perhaps as a result of the centenary of the beginning of the Great War in 1914, and the centenary commemorations of events such as the Battle of the Somme, many people have made more effort to connect to their own loved ones who served and to bring the connection with them alive. And it’s wonderful that we have some relatives of ‘The Fallen’ with us this afternoon. But as they fade away, we come face to face with questions of what we would have done, if we had been in their shoes, face to face with our own humanity.
I remember reading a recollection of a former soldier who spoke about his experiences on the First World War who simply said of an encounter in the trenches; ‘All humanity leaves you, it’s either him or me.’ Remembering brings us closer to our own humanity and our longing to be formed as people who long to live in peace.
And as we hold silence and remember we are invited to be part of that peace-making community too. At a time when we struggle with a rise in nationalism, when the rhetoric of public discourse in our world is more brutal, that call to be peace makers, centred on the love of Christ, seems more urgent.
On this centenary of the Unveiling and Dedication of a War Memorial for the community of Billericay, It’s right to honour those whose names are inscribed forever in stone and it’s right that we remember the 10 million soldiers who died, and the 888,246 British soldiers (including 179 Army Chaplains) who gave their lives so that we may live in peace and freedom. And it’s also right that we remember Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice for you and for me on the cross. the cross which bridges the gap between heaven and earth.
Today we may honour a passing age, but we look into a future where all they have done was not in vain. We hold silence and remember so we can be reminded of a call to speak and recommit to live as peacemakers, as people who through the love and passion and self-offering and sacrifice of Christ, God has come near. And we live in the hope of a world where war will be no more.
As Siegfried Sassoon wrote:
Look down and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Brian Hughes, President of the Billericay Branch of the Royal British Legion gave us a short history of the Billericay War Memorial and that can be read/downloaded here BILLERICAY THE MEMORIAL AND THE RBL
A service like this is ‘once in a lifetime’ and there’s no template from which to start – though there will be many more commemorations such as this in the coming years across the UK.
We’ve tried to replicate the service that took place here on 16 October 1921, even singing the same hymns. Unfortunately, the Bible Reading wasn’t mentioned on the service sheet, so we’ve had to make a decision on that. We’ve also been unable to use any of the original liturgy – they may have used liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, and so I opened the servcie using the following prayers:
Opening Prayer (Evening Prayer BCP)
Dearly beloved brethren, we are come together in the presence of Almighty God and of the whole company of heaven to offer unto him through our Lord Jesus Christ our worship and praise and thanksgiving; to make confession of our sins; to pray, as well for others as for ourselves, that we may know more truly the greatness of God’s love and shew forth in our lives the fruits of his grace; and to ask on behalf of all men such things as their well-being doth require.
Wherefore let us sit in silence and remember God’s presence with us now.
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; according to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may ever hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy name. Amen.
A Prayer for the Dedication of a War Memorial (BCP)
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, in whose hands are the living and the dead; We give thee thanks for all those thy servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country. Grant to them thy mercy and the light of thy presence, that the good work which thou hast begun in them may be perfected; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord. Amen.