The former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown was once lampooned for commenting that “The problem with Remembrance is that, so often, it is all about the past.” His critics enjoyed the moment – as a number of commentators picked up on the general theme, admitting that it is generally easier to “remember” things when they’ve already happened!
I think, however, there may have been more wisdom in his words that he was given credit for. Yes, of course, Remembrance IS about the past – and this year in particular our minds are drawn particularly to the events of a century ago – but I’m also concerned that Remembrance is not meant to be ALL about the past.
After all, none of us DO actually remember 1914: None of us can recall what it felt like to be approaching the ultimatum of 4th August that year, none of us can really understand what the politicians, the military leaders, or the general public of Imperial Britain thought they were letting themselves in for as war began.
What we can “remember” is the fact that they existed, the fact that they DID sacrifice so much, and their sheer determination to push on to the bitter end even when the confident assertion that it would all be over by Christmas” was replaced by the grim reality of Trench warfare.
And in all this, as with other conflicts, our “remembering” allows us to recognise the human qualities of those involved – the sense of purpose as well as pride the human judgements that were made for good or ill and we recognise perhaps that there ARE similarities between those “strangers” of 100 years ago and the men and women, girls and boys who surround us today.
We “remember” in order to learn lessons for the future – not just to revel, mawkishly, in past woes.
That, I think, is what Gordon Brown was driving at.
I want to share with you two other quotations that I’ve encountered recently: the first comes from the war memorial in St. Catherine’s Church, at Netherhampton. On it are recorded the names of 26 men from that tiny village who marched to war – four of whom never returned.
At the top of the memorial is inscribed the following verse:
These men of ours, unselfish, unafraid,
went to the worldwide fight.
Forget not how they fought and how we prayed,
for England and for right.
That’s quite revealing I think – it shows an understanding from the early 20th Century that the Great War WAS truly a World War – something bigger than anything seen before; that it was a fight that engaged the WHOLE nation – those at the front and those at home; that it was a fight for principle and for the homeland: Britain had not known an invasion for over 1000 years – but now sensed new terrors. This island fortress suddenly seemed more vulnerable, with the advent of submarines and aircraft.
What really caught my eye, though, was the description of those who went to war as “unselfish” and “unafraid”. I’m happy with the first word – even those who, in the early days, thought that war might be quite fun, did ultimately have to face a rather harsher reality and did so for the sake of others. But what about the other description? Can we really think that those men were unafraid?
When stories of the front began to drift back home, along with the first waves of casualties –could anyone then have set off without at least some degree of trepidation?
To do so would surely have been foolhardy – inhuman even.
And so, to balance those sentiments, another perspective which I stumbled across on a poster at Wilton and Barford School.
“Courage”, it reads, “is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear;”
Those young men, heading for the trenches that would often feel more like a prison than a refuge, MUST have felt fear if they understood anything – the honour they are due is in overcoming that fear because they felt that to fail would lead to something far worse.
And so I think we need to be careful in the way that do keep Remembrance – that we don’t reduce those we “remember” to something less than the men they were. To imagine them as perfect, fearless or unquestioning is to underestimate their real suffering and the huge emotional cost of their commitment.
To allow ourselves to do that is to distance ourselves, artificially, from those who died.
It also allows us to distance ourselves from any notion that WE might be called to make sacrifices, or to face fears of our own.
Yet we know that, today, there are real threats to our own way of life – social divisions and renewed nationalist tendencies – both in the West and in the former Soviet Union, the emerging threat of ISIS and other terrorist groups.
WE are surely right to fear the various threats that they pose. Like our ancestors of 100 years ago – we are challenged to rise above that fear, and be ready to do whatever it takes to overcome those things which threaten our wellbeing and the stability of the nations.
The poetry of Cecil Spring Rice, who died at the end of the Great War – which we sang as our second hymn, “I Vow to thee my country”, – provides another insight into the prevailing mind-set at the outbreak of the Great War and perhaps also suggests to us a model for our Remembrances.
There is within those words an unmistakable patriotism – a sense that “my country” is somehow more important than just “me”. There is a strong sense of duty – of love for our fellow countrymen and women – that demands great things of us all.
Then there is an altogether darker mood in the second verse – which is presumably the reason it is omitted from most hymn books. Here is an acknowledgement of the real cost of war – and of the despair that sometimes grips us in the face of fear and hostility, and yet hope remains.
Finally comes the promise of better things to come and a reminder of the Christian’s dual citizenship of our homeland here and of heaven the reward for our struggles along the way; a reminder of our duty both to our neighbour and to God, without whom our visions and our labours will be in vain.
Remembrance IS about remembering the past – recognising the great sacrifices and human cost of the Great War and other conflicts since.
But let it also be about taking stock of our world today – acknowledging those freedoms that we prize and the things that threaten their survival.
And let it be a time to dream of better things – and for us all to be resolved, in God’s strength, to achieve what human progress we can in the cause of right.