As I write this, we are enjoying the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, to quote John Keats’ wonderful Ode to Autumn. Unfortunately, it is not just fruitfulness that is brought to mind this month but destruction: public consciousness is dominated by remembrance, particularly this year when we mourn the loss of a whole generation of young men one hundred years ago in the First World War.
The Great War, as it became known, was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’, but sadly that was not to be the case. During the early part of the 20th Century there was a general disquiet about the prospects of war, however the situation in the summer of 1914 was strangely quiet. When the shot that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was fired it wasn’t inevitable that war would follow. No one was to know that, as the Methodist Recorder put it, the war that was to follow would be such a social, political and moral shock to a whole civilisation.
Despite the fact that the First World War started a hundred years ago, it has remained ever-present; its history, myths and memories are all around us. Images of mud, trenches, and of a lost generation of young lives squandered in a seemingly futile war come readily to mind. A poppy symbolises all that tragic loss during the years of 1914-18.
Trenches and mud are part of our collective memory of WW1, we’ve all seen the films. The Western Front has become our image of this conflict and yet this wasn’t the experience of many in that war. Fighting was not confined to the fields of France and Belgium, it was also in the deserts of the Middle East and the jungles of Africa, on the oceans and in the mountains. This truly was a world war.
Life in the trenches could be terrifying, but if they were scared the soldiers often tried to hide their fear and keep the proverbial ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude, which stayed with them until they died. But they were surrounded by stress, injury, death and the dreaded gas which had such long-lasting effects. The psycholoical damage was also long-lasting for some. Today, exposure to traumatic experiences is better understood and we would diagnose Post Traumatic Stress – then it was ‘shell shock’ and soldiers just had to get on with it, sent back to the frontline when the medics thought they had recovered enough.
Of course civilians were also effected by the war. Resources and food became scarce as the war dragged on. Unlike the Second World War, few civilians in Britain were directly affected but hunger made the population susceptible to disease. On the oceans there were food blockades which meant that essential foodstuffs didn’t get through. Food queues were common in all the countries involved and many left empty-handed.
The First World War caused unprecedented numbers of casualties. There aren’t accurate figures but the estimated death toll worldwide was 10 million soldiers and 6 million civilians. Many were left with serious injuries from shellfire. However, many new medical advances were made during the war: saline drips, blood transfusions, splints, triage, plastic surgery and x-rays.
Severe wounds of body, mind and spirit were inevitable. Many of course were left bereaved or dealing with injured loved ones when they returned. The wives, children, friends and fiancées of the dead suffered greatly, fearing the worst when letters from the front stopped arriving – the waiting was agonising. There was nothing they could do. Given the huge number of casualties, it was inevitable that most people knew someone who had died. Not everyone lost someone in their family but there was a communal grief which led to the installation of war memorials, the Cenotaph (which means ’empty tomb’), the period of silence, the poppy symbol and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.
The burial of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November 1920 was an emotional event. An unidentified soldier, randomly chosen, was buried in Westminster Abbey. There were many such bodies and some found it comforting to believe that it was their loved one who was buried in that special place.
During the 1920s it became popular to wear a poppy, and this became part of the commemorations in Britain, inspired by John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ (1915):
In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
between the crosses, row on row,
that mark our place, and in the sky, the larks still bravely singing, fly.
Unheard amid the guns below.
In many ways these things remain unchanged, we still wear poppies in November, we still parade by the Cenotaph and lay wreaths there and at war memorials throughout the country. We still have services to remember. However, following the Second World War and all the wars since it has become necessary to recognise the sacrifice of new generations. War has changed but the cost is still too great.
During our service today we remembered those who have died, but also prayed for peace and reconciliation and considered how we can bring about peace. The wars we fight now are different, we have moved on, they are not always against other countries but against ideologies and we have yet to work out how to tackle these emerging challenges that are already causing distress to so many.
A prayer for peace:
May all who work for world peace and reason be granted the gifts of strength and courage.
May the good that dwells in every human heart be magnified.
May the blessing of truth and understanding be ours.
May the love of God abide within all of us as create a plan for tomorrow.
May we do so with grace, wisdom, compassion and love for all.
Lest we forget.
God bless and shalom,