St Bride's: Sermons

Remembrance

Remembrance

Leaving aside the Bible, there is one work of literature that, for me, towers above just about everything else that has ever been written.  It comes from an age and a culture that could not be more different from our own in just about every respect.  And yet its subject matter is timeless, because its themes are those of pride; rage; love; death; bereavement; heroism; guilt; vengeance; emotional turmoil; and reconciliation.

And the story that it tells is set within the context of a terrible and bloody war (which is why, as you will discover shortly, it is of very direct relevance to our service today) - although the war that it describes took place many centuries ago.  It was a war between the mighty armies of Greece and Troy.  Because I am speaking of one of the most ancient works of literature in existence - the Greek epic traditionally attributed to the poet Homer, entitled The Iliad.

Now, I would be the first person to admit that The Iliad is not an easy read.  Far from it.  Indeed, I doubt that I would ever have managed to plough my way through it myself, had I not been obliged to do so as an undergraduate, because it was one of my set texts. I can remember, in particular, struggling through its interminable battle scenes, and the endless detailed and rather stylised accounts of individual heroes locked in hand-to-hand combat, which go on for page, after page, after page.

Except that one day, while I was wading through yet another of Homer's inordinately long and detailed battle scenes, suddenly, and completely unexpectedly, I got it!

I realised with a jolt that took me completely by surprise, that in the midst of all those endless and detailed accounts of blood and carnage, something quite astonishing was going on - something that I have never seen replicated in any other literary account of war, ever.  And in the process, Homer manages to nail a truth about the reality of war that remains every bit as relevant today as it was when The Iliad was first written down.

You see, there are two very notable, and rather unusual features of Homer's description of battle.  Firstly, he is surprisingly even-handed in the way in which he describes the two warring sides.  This is emphatically not a simple tale of good guys fighting bad guys.  Far from it: there are men of courage and men of frailty and weakness on both sides; and one glimpses the terrible impact of tragic loss for all of them, regardless of which side they are fighting for. 

But the second, and even more important feature, is directly connected with all those interminable very short, but highly detailed, accounts of hand-to-hand combat - dozens and dozens and dozens of them, one after the other.  Let me read one of them for you, very briefly - an episode that I have picked at random.  Here the Trojans are in retreat from the Greek onslaught - but suddenly the Trojan fighter Glaukos turns back and confronts the Greek warrior Bathykles:

But Glaukos was first ...

to turn again, and killed Bathykles the great-hearted, beloved
son of Chalkon, who had dwelled in his home in Hellas,
conspicuous for wealth and success among all the Myrmidons.

It was he whom Glaukos stabbed in the middle of the chest, turning
suddenly back with his spear as he over took him.  He fell
thunderously, and the closing sorrow came over the Achaians
as the great man went down.

You see, it suddenly dawned on me that here, in this short incident - and dozens more like it - we are experiencing something that is far more significant than merely an account of a soldier killing an opponent.  On the contrary, the men we glimpse in this brief episode are named human beings, who have identities; who have personalities; who have stories; who have relationships.  In this fleeting little passage we learn that Bathykles is a great-hearted man; that he has a father who loves him dearly, who is himself named - Chalkon.  His family is wealthy and successful; and his loss is mourned terribly by the men on his side.  And Homer is telling us all this about a single individual who does not appear anywhere else in the story, apart from this one episode. 

And why does he do it?  Because by doing so, he takes us, his readers, straight to the very heart of the tragic reality of war, by the simple device of detailing the individual stories of the men who are caught up in it. That is why his battle scenes take so long, and can, at first sight, seem so unnecessarily detailed.  Because Homer's warriors are real human beings, with personalities, and stories and relationships.  In The Iliad, every single human being who falls in battle is presented to us as an individual human tragedy, leaving behind a grieving family, a stricken parent; a desolate wife.  For Homer, the true tragedy of war resides, not simply in its scale, but, more significantly, in the human cost that we see at the level of every individual participant.

Every year on Armistice Day, a little ceremony takes place here at St Bride's, of which, I suspect, most of you will be completely unaware.  At ten to eleven on 11th November, a group of about a dozen representatives from the London Evening Standard come down to our main crypt chapel, where we hold an act of Remembrance.  They lay wreaths by the Evening Standard Memorial, which commemorates the staff and employees of their organisation who fell in the two World Wars.  And the centrepiece, and the most moving part of that short ceremony, is the reading aloud of the names of those who are commemorated in their Book of Remembrance: 

"W. Bailey; D.W. Berry; J. Blundell; G. Boyce ..." and so it goes on.  Of those whose names we hear read aloud, thirty-six of them were young men who were killed the First World War; a further twenty-two names belong to those who died during World War Two.  And by the simple act of naming them aloud in that way, one by one, we are reminded, in a very moving and powerful way, that every single one of these names was an individual human life with a human story.  Every name a personal tragedy; every name a devastating loss.

And it is worth remembering that that is not the only war memorial down in our crypt.  There is another one, on the wall of the small mediaeval chapel that we now know as the Rothermere Chapel, containing additional names. And there is one particular name that features on that memorial which belongs to a young man who, as chance would have it, was killed exactly one hundred years ago today: on the 13th November 1916.

Although he was only twenty-one years old when he died on the battlefields of France, this young lieutenant was already a seasoned campaigner.  He was killed on the first day of the Battle of Ancre, the final phase of the Battle of the Somme.  He was serving on the front-line with the Hawke Battalion, part of the 63rd Royal Naval Division, which had received infantry training.   He was mortally wounded, and died of his injuries.  His name was Lieutenant the Honorable Vere Sidney Tudor Harmsworth.  And it was his grieving father, the then Lord Rothermere, who subsequently paid for the erection of the 63rd Royal Naval Division monument at Beaucourt.

Back in the Bronze Age, possibly during the twelfth century BC, Bathykles, the great-hearted warrior among the Greeks, came from a home conspicuous for its wealth and success, and was beloved of his father, Chalkon.  Vere Harmsworth, too, came from a home conspicuous for its wealth and success, and he, too, was beloved of his father.  The nature of war and its impact over the centuries has changed so very much, and so very little.  Which is why it is so very important that we do our remembering.  Because we must never be allowed to forget the horror and the barbarity of war, and the individual tragedies of which it comprises.  Remembering matters.

At the very beginning of this service the choir sang an anthem, which was included at my specific request.  It is the setting by the composer Peter Aston of some words that also come from ancient Greece, this time dating back to the Fifth Century BC.  They are words taken from a funeral oration for the fallen by the Greek General and Statesman, Pericles of Athens.  And speaking to us from across the centuries, his words remind us that, even when our memories of the fallen do eventually fade away, and their individual names are forgotten, nevertheless their story lives on, within the very fabric of our lives.  In the words of that anthem:

So they gave their bodies to the commonwealth
and received praise that will never die,
and a home in the minds of men.
Their story lives on without visible symbol,
woven into the stuff of other men's lives.
So they gave their bodies to the commonwealth,
and received praise that will never die,
that will never, never, never die.

Amen

 

 

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