The 16 October 1921 saw the centenary of the dedication and unveiling of the Billericay War Memorial – where we shall gather for our Act of Remembrance at 10.50 am this morning.
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 … 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.
Billericay, during the first world war was a very different place than it is today. It was a compact village of about 2000 inhabitants. There was a total of 54 premises in the High Street 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.
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 (including 179 Army Chaplains). Not forgetting, of course, 7 million civilians and an unbelievable 23 million wounded. These are shocking and sobering statistics indeed.
It’s not difficult to imagine the suffering the war caused and how much people hoped there would not be another. It had a devastating effect on the lives of servicemen and their dependents. So many families lost their breadwinner.
They were referred to as ‘The Lost Generation’ those men and boys who never returned home to talk and joke, to live and breathe. With the incomprehensible loss of life, that Great War was supposed to be the “War to end all Wars” such was the horror of it.
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). And how many of those suffering from PTSD were shot after being accused of cowardice?
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.
Studdert Kennedy firmly believed that the suffering of war, was uniquely met in Jesus. The Gospel he preached, embraced suffering, pain, and despair. He speaks of the God who 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, forgiveness, and love and shows us a way to be fully human.
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. 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. 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.
When we look at the dreadful cost of war and the sacrifices made by so many, we wonder if we can truly believe, 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.
According to the Bible, the only peace that will last is peace that comes from God. Our reading from Psalm 46 reminded us that God is our refuge and strength in our times of trouble – whatever they maybe. Whether the earth passes away; the mountains fall into the sea; the nations are in uproar; the earth melts … It seems to me that the only lasting peace that is of any value is that men, and nations, come to trust in God.
During the First World War, four organisations were created which all represented the rights of soldiers, sailors, ex Servicemen, their widows and dependents. The largest, “The Comrades of the Great War” was formed in 1917 and was non-political whereas the other three hoped to improve the lot of those they represented by political means.
In the aftermath of the Great War, it had become apparent that there was need for one organisation to support and represent all members of the Armed Forces, to hold the government to account and ensure all that all those who served and sacrificed were given the support they needed and deserved. Thanks largely to the efforts and persuasive powers of Earl (formerly Field Marshall) Douglas Haig, the four organisations were brought together, and that one organisation was to be called “The British Legion” and it was constituted on 15 May 1921.
On this centenary of the Unveiling and Dedication of a War Memorial for the community of Billericay, and the forming of the Royal British Legion. 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.
As First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote: … swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
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 recommit ourselves to live as peacemakers, as people who through the love and passion and sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, where God came near and bridged the gap between heaven and earth.
“Have you forgotten yet?
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways;
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game…
Have your forgotten yet?
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.
Siegfried Sassoon, March 1919
This is a copy of my talk given on Remembrance Sunday 2021 at Emmanuel. My Bible Readings were Psalm 46:1-11 and John 14:1-4, 6 & 27, and John 15:12-13