Tricia Humber’s homily for the Solemn Requiem Mass on Remembrance Sunday.
“What is Passchendaele? As I saw it this morning, through the smoke of gunfire and a wet mist, it was less than I had seen before – a week or so ago – with just one ruin there – the ruin of its church – a black mass of slaughtered masonry and nothing else; not a house left standing, not a huddle of brick on that shell swept height.”
These words were written by Phillip Gibbs, a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and reported in that paper on the 7th November 1917. This vivid account gives us just a tiny glimpse of what it must’ve been like as the battle of Passchendaele finally came to an end. Thousands of lives were lost just on this one battle front, including many from our local regiment, the Bedfordshire. Whilst most that died were identified and buried in military graves, many couldn’t be identified or couldn’t be found – as a result, their families received telegrams or letters saying that they were simply ‘missing’ or ‘missing presumed dead’ – there was no way of knowing how their loved ones died, no known grave or marked resting place to show where they fell. All they could do was to remember them. We can’t smell, hear, see or feel the often unbearable conditions these men fought and died in. We can’t really know the suffering and challenges they faced because of the incessant wet and the quagmires of the trenches and the battlefields, nor the life-changing wounds many sustained.
What we do know from the many records of that time, is that as well as the countless brothers and friends who signed up together, unlikely friendships and bonds developed, as men were thrown together by fate and circumstances – quarry workers, horse keepers and labourers came together alongside teachers, tailors and bank clerks – men from all walks of life and different classes, as well numerous different nationalities, faiths and creeds, who shared the difficulties and the few times of joy, watched the backs of their friends and comrades and who as our gospel reading reminds us, often gave the greatest gift they could as they laid down their lives for their friends and comrades.
And we shouldn’t forget the women of that time; those who served and died on the front lines as nurses and ambulance drivers, and also those here at home who gave their lives – as I found when researching 100 year remembrance anniversaries for my own parish magazine. We have one such rare example included on the war memorial in Heath and Reach – Nora Tompkins aged just 17 – who died of wounds sustained in an explosion at the Chaul End munitions factory. We remember them all – men and women alike – with great gratitude.
Those same bonds and friendships have continued to be formed in the wars and battles since, as new generations of men and women have faced the challenges and dangers of combat on the ground and the sea and in the air – in well remembered and sometimes overlooked times and places. There have been deaths in almost every year since 1945 as civilians and military personnel alike have continued to give or risk their lives willingly to defend our right to freedom, justice and peace. They have been ready to go out of their way for others, to save those in danger or coming to the aid of those in need - even at their own personal expense, and they are still willing and ready to do so today.
Love for others means being willing to die for others – it is the greatest gift and Jesus showed his love for us by dying on the cross for us. If Jesus could lay down his own life for us, what part of our lives can we give up for others – prejudice, unwillingness to help or forgive, hatred, or even something else? It can be so difficult to face, but unless we try, we will never know. As time moves on, memories fade and those who have witnessed many of the significant conflicts of the last century first hand are no longer with us. Sadly, despite the terrible losses of the past, we have to acknowledge that global peace is seemingly an impossible goal as we consider the many conflicts in the world today; the millions of victims and the many thousands who have and will be prepared to give their lives for others.
May we truly appreciate the importance of peace and forever remember the ultimate sacrifice of those who have fought and died in both the past and in the present day, so that we can have the freedoms we have so often take for granted. And if we want to see peace in our lives and in our world, we need to take seriously, Jesus’ instruction to love one another – and pray that solutions can be sought so that confrontation can be reduced or even eliminated.
May we therefore, stand united, setting an example today by striving for peace, working to heal the wounds of division and by fighting for a just future for all humanity, loving one another as Jesus loves us because we want our future generations still to be able to say – we will remember those who have given their lives for us in the past and those who continue to do so, so that we can now truly enjoy freedom and harmony. Amen.
During the formative years of my vocation I took part in a number of ecumenical pilgrimages to the holy island of Iona, off the coast of Mull. We would walk almost ninety miles over hiking trails, fields, and costal paths only to arrive, exhausted and happy, to celebrate Easter Day with the monastic community of the island. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only thing I remember clearly about each of these pilgrimages is the sense of sheer joy I experienced arriving to Iona. I don’t remember the falls along the way, the blisters, or the relentless wind – only joy of having finally arrived.
For those who know me fairly well, what I just said should not come as a shock at all as I tend to be – shall we say – a little forgetful. But the fact that my recollections only focus on joy may have also something to do with selective memory; something that each of us can fall into, especially after experiencing difficult circumstances. In fact, even St John’s gospel recalls Jesus talking about such a thing as selective memory when he says, ‘A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world’ (John 16:21).
Selective memory helps us to focus on our accomplishments; giving us the morale boost we would need should we be confronted by similar situations in the future. After all, if I remembered all the hardship my group of pilgrims endured walking down steep and freezing slopes in the pouring rain for a week, I would have probably never done that pilgrimage again… So selective memory can be helpful as we make our way through life; but it can also be a trap that prevents us from seeing clearly the reality of what we have been through, hampering our sense of gratitude towards those who have helped us along the way. And this is never more critical than when selective memory affects an entire nation; it is never more dangerous than when selective memory becomes selective remembrance.
In the midst of the Battle of Britain, on 20th August 1940, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons with powerful words that made it into the history books; words that have influenced the collective remembrance of the nation ever since.
‘The gratitude of every home in our Island, …and indeed throughout the world, …goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
Remembrance informs our gratitude. In other words, the way in which remember informs the way in which we give thanks to others, and indeed to God, according to justice for what they have done for us. Therefore, if today we remembered “the Few” and just “the Few” whom Churchill spoke of as “British airmen” then our remembrance would be selective and so our sense of gratitude would also be selective, excluding others whose valiant efforts also determined the outcome of the Battle of Britain.
‘It's not “lest we forget”, it's “lest we remember”. That's what all this is about -the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence… Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.’
Alan Bennet places these words on the lips of Tom Irwin, a cynical supply teacher in his acclaimed play the History Boys. This scathing gibe which could appear directed towards the entire culture of remembrance is, in fact, a dig at the way in which we tend to idealize, streamline, and make palatable the ways in which we remember momentous and tragic events, such as war, or in our very case also the Battle of Britain. This is a dig at selective remembrance, and we should do well to heed its call.
Let us remember that almost a quarter of the pilots who met the enemy in the skies of Britain came from fourteen other countries – 24,39%, if my I am doing my maths right. Let us also remember the ground control staff; the countless civilians who lost their lives in air-raids whilst working in airplanes and ammunition factories. Let us remember those who kept watch over our skies in the Royal Control Corps, now disbanded.
The very peace we have enjoyed on this continent for the last seventy years was wrought into the brotherhood and the blood of those who fought to defend the skies of Britain regardless of their nationality, but only in the pursuit of justice. If Britain had fallen under the enemy bombardments, God only knows what would have happened. D-Day would have perhaps never arrived, and certainly it would not have played out in the way it did. VE Day would have never dawned, and the oppression of totalitarism, racial hate, and fascism would have held sway across an entire continent…
In the Christian sense remembering has much to do with making present past events in their entirety. It means being honest about what happened so that we may properly give thanks to God and to everyone involved. That fateful Battle we remember today indeed tuned the tide of the World War, it was won over the skies of Britain and the Channel, and it was fought by the Few, the Forgotten Few from other countries (almost airbrushed out of history), by the Control Corps on the rooves of our cities, and by the many men and women who valiantly supported them at ground control, and in the spitfire factories. Today we call all of them to mind in one single act of true remembrance. To them all today goes out our debt of gratitude. And for them our prayers ascend to God the Father, that he may grant their souls eternal rest, that after the hardships they endured for the cause of justice they may be welcomed into a the joy of his kingdom. Amen.