St Bride's: Sermons

Remembrance Sunday

Remembrance Sunday
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Very occasionally I have had cause to reflect upon the fact that the odds against my existence really are quite substantial.

At the outbreak of the First World War, my grandfather, Harry, a farmer's boy from Leicestershire, joined the Royal Garrison Artillery and was sent to the front. The rations that the troops were given in the trenches included biscuits that had been baked very hard, and one day, while eating one of them he managed to break a tooth, and so was given leave to visit the dentist.

Now the facilities for dental treatment in the trenches were primitive, to say the least. In a clearing there was a bell tent containing a chair, two strong men to hold down the patient, and the dentist, whose basic role in life was simply pulling out teeth (without the aid of anaesthetic).

Seeing this, quite a lot of those soldiers who had turned up for dental treatment decided that, on balance, toothache was preferable, and left.  But my grandfather was evidently made of sterner stuff, and so he had his extraction, before returning to his post. But nothing had prepared him for the terrible sight that awaited him when he arrived there: because there, in a crater, lay the bodies of the young men whom he had been with only a short-time beforehand. In his absence, his position had taken a direct hit, wiping them all out at a stroke. And he should have been one of them.

My grandfather survived the Battle of the Somme; he survived a sniper's bullet that grazed his ear; and he survived an escapade involving a couple of his comrades which could have led to all of them being court-martialled and shot, but for the compassionate heart of a senior officer who chose to turn a blind eye to that particular incident. But to this day I remain strangely haunted by the thought that I owe my existence in part to an army biscuit.

Fast forward twenty seven years. On 10th March 1943, in the middle of the night, the motor torpedo boat on which my father, Alec, was a nineteen year old naval officer, was blown out of the water. My dad remained in the icy waters of the North Sea, in pitch darkness, amongst the dead and the injured, until being fished out by a passing German patrol boat, to spend the rest of the war in a Prisoner of War camp in northern Germany: Marlag. While there he was involved in various escape attempts, one of which was later immortalised in a film, in 1953, entitled Albert RN. But he, too, was a survivor - although both he and my grandfather, in their different ways, undoubtedly bore the scars of those experiences for the rest of their lives.

Now, there is nothing special about my family. Many of you here today will have similar stories to tell about family members and friends; and any of you who have spent time in war zones, whether in military service or as journalists, will have stories of your own. But for those members of my own generation, and my children's generation, who have never had to experience the reality of war at first hand, these stories matter.

They matter because stories make it real. They have the power to connect us with events that are outside our own experience - they can shock us and surprise us; and they can make us weep.

I can remember my grandfather once saying that, for all the horrors and the atrocities that he witnessed during his time in the trenches, the one thing that haunted him probably more than anything else was this: some of the youngsters around him, barely out of childhood, many of whom had never before been away from their home villages, were so frightened and so lost during the bombardments that they would cry. They would cry for their mothers.

And these stories also matter because the facts and figures alone are of a scale that is almost impossible for the human mind to take in. Eight and a half million dead; thirty seven million casualties; numbers so vast as to be almost meaningless. Perhaps the reason why the current display of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London has drawn such astonishing crowds, is precisely because its symbolism enables us to glimpse what human loss on such a scale means.

Although, of course, those poppies, in their staggering numbers represent merely the British and Commonwealth dead. The total loss of life was far, far greater than that - and even that figure is dwarfed by the true cost of war, when calculated in terms of broken hearts and shattered lives.

My grandmother was married to my grandfather, Harry, for over fifty years, and outlived him. One day, a few months before she herself died in a nursing home, at the age of ninety one, she showed my mother a photograph and a ring. It turned out that they were gifts from a young man to whom she had once been engaged, long before she met my grandfather; a young man who during the First World War went over to France but never came back. And none of us had known of his existence. I am not even sure that my grandfather did. And yet, my grandmother had nursed that hidden grief privately, and silently, for more than seventy years. And when at the very end of her life she was obliged to select a scant few possessions to take with her into the nursing home, those fragile tokens of a long-lost love went with her.

War must never be glamorised, because war is never ever glamorous. But by the same token it would be an outrageous denial of the truth to let the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in war to pass unrecognised. Because the price they paid was a terrible one; and because the gifts of peace and freedom which my own generation perhaps takes too readily for granted were, in no small measure, bought at their expense.

This being the centenary of its outbreak, a great deal of the well-known poetry of the First World War has been on the airwaves this year. I would like to close by reading you a poem that I suspect many of you will not have come across before. It is a short and rather beautiful poem written by a woman, Teresa Hooley, and it is called 'Two Minutes' Silence'.

Just to set the scene for you: it is Armistice Day in the year 1925, seven years after the end of the war. A young woman wants to seek out a quiet place to observe the two minute silence, but she has her young son with her who is too small to understand.  

Two Minutes' Silence (Armistice Day 1925)

Not mine this year
To keep the silence that I hold so dear,
Since I shall be with you,
My little son too small to understand
Or to keep still
Being only two.

So, though I take you by the hand, and bring you to the grassy, wind-swept hill,
Where I stand and am quiet,
Your baby words
Will chatter still of the cows and trees and birds.

They will not mind.
They loved the country, and children, and sun, and wind, my little lad,
They gave their life to keep you safe and glad,
That you might grow - a heritage, a trust,
A man to play the game when they are dust.

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