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.