Remembrance Day Sermon Castle Acre


Remembrance Sunday, 100th Anniversary 2018. One of the things that has changed significantly in my 25 years in ministry has been the keeping of Remembrance. The dispiriting effects of the post war period which led some to almost willfully misunderstand the true purpose of Remembrance led to a decline in numbers. But as the numbers of those who recalled the two World Wars declined, and the country once again faced active military action in the Falklands and then in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The immediacy of modern media and the connectedness of social media meant young people had a very immediate sense of what was involved. Their own generation were risking their lives and they knew how and where, and numbers attending Remembrance rose steadily, and with the advent of such charities as Help for Heroes and the continuing wonderful work of the Royal British Legion, a more rounded understanding of the role of our armed forces returned too. Today on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month we marked a most extraordinary anniversary. 100 years since the guns were silenced on the Western front, and the end to what became known as the Great War. Above all other conflicts the Great War haunts the collective imagination, and it is often referred to through the staggering statistics it gave rise to. And they are extraordinary: a small sample might include: Total casualities 37.5 million, maimed for life 7 million. 2 million German dead, 979,498 British and Empire dead. 230 soldiers killed for every hour of the War, 80k shell shocked British, 65% of all Australian troops died, highest of any country. 11% of the entire French population were killed. You could hear in London heavy explosions from France. In 8 weeks in 1914 5 battles alone accounted for over 300k casualties. 50% of merchant shipping sunk. The Russians lost 170,00 men in August 1914 at the Battle of Tannenburg alone. Verdun, lasted over 300 days in 1916 – German losses up to 434k injured 145k killed, allies 380k casualites 163k killed. Somme – 1916, 420k British casualties, 200k French, 540k German. On the very first day around 60k British troops were lost. Gallipoli 15/16 3k Anzac, 27,000 French and 115,000 British and Dominion troops lost. Mustard gas, affected 1.2miiion. The War nearly broke the country financially, in one 24hour period in 1918 the cost of shells and bullets alone was over £4 million in today’s money. Youngest soldier who fooled the recruiters was 12, and over 250,000 under age soldiers fought. Youngest VC was 16 – posthumous. 634 awarded. Sergeant Stubby a Boston Terrier was the War’s most decorated dog, the only one to rise to the rank of Sergeant. I million dogs died in the war, 8 million horses and mules, 1,000’s of carrier pigeons. 12 million letters delivered to the frontline weekly. Tins sent in the name of Queen Mary contained not only chocolate and cigarettes, but morphine r other opiods. The War Led to invention of plastic surgery, blood banks, and camouflage. Machine guns, tanks, heavy artillery, U-boats and 70 different types of planes, flamethrowers, and deep mine explosions all made their mark in the Great War. 700k women worked in munitions and often turned yellow. By end of war women were 37% of workforce, and in 1918 they were given limited freedom to vote alongside working class men. However, statistics however compelling cannot tell us everything, they cannot of themselves tell us the why, and how, nor narrate the true effects of loss and upheaval on such a scale. They give information they do not give understanding. As it happens by some measures the Great war was not the largest loss of life, indeed because they were moved with such frequency, and because by the end almost 38 million men had been mobilized in total, 90% in fact survived the trenches. And it was not inevitable we would be a part of this widespread collapse of Empires, 75% of the British parliament were for non-interference, Herbert Asquith thought Britain not required to support France or Russia in their fight with Germany. What the world was witnessing was the widespread death throes of the collapse of Empires Austro Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, and revolution, change and the destruction of some nations and the birth of others. It was a time of change on a world scale, nothing would ever be the same again. But what was playing out on those self-same battlefield were such stark contrasts; heavy mechanized warfare given full rein, the hell of machine gun fire, but alongside it cavalry regiments on horseback, and generals trained in the world of arm-to-arm fighting, set piece battles and bayonet charges. Thousands of lives were thrown away for little or no gain, what a General referred to as ‘grinotage’, literally nibbling away yard at a time as lives were lost and fought over ground went back and forth with no thought to what victory might even mean. And I think this is perhaps why the Great War with its staggering facts and reality still moves us and calls us to bear witness. Because the price paid by so many the loss which affected every village bar a handful, and touched the lives of everyone, was over what? Few even in the War could give the reason for them being there, or even define what was the hope of success? In the second World War people saw the moral compunction to resist European fascism and Japanese Militarism, to stand up to the racist and murderous mentality that lay behind it all. But the heroism of the soldiers of the first Way is more poignant because they were loyal and faithful, and went through hell without that knowledge. Our collective mi-use of them still moves, and the waste still numbs. And as scripture so often makes clear people are slow to admit error and even more so to learn from them. Versailles cost Germany $31.4 billion, and sizeable amounts of its sovereign territory. Many have argued that this laid the groundwork for the troubles that lay ahead culminating in the 39-45 conflict. Marshal Foch said of Versailles, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years”, how prophetic. So today 100 years on all this brings us here to stand in respect, to consider all this terrible loss, the individual costs paid, the heroism of those who will serve their nation, and the sobering judgment that has to be laid on those who led the world into such horrors. I feel the collapse of Empires was only part of the change that began, the diminishing of deference and hierarchy, and many of the old certainties has perhaps with the addition of modern media and connectedness meant that governments and ideologies can and are held to account more readily. Well that is the hope, I am unsure if the world has learned, whether it is any safer or more secure. And the dividend the true response to all this sacrifice and loss has to be to work for a world which is more secure, more peaceful, more respectful of difference, less nationalistic and aggressive. As present events prove, there is still a long way to go, so even more important then that we gather to pay tribute, to listen and to take away the lesson of this day, because they were won at such a price. Fr. Richard Howells