How can and should we mark the beginning of the First World War? What should we say? This is my first of two attempts, as we mark the hundredth anniversary. This sermon is from the ecumenical service last night, at which the Royal British Legion and ATC Squadron were also present. We lit candles, listened to poems and heard readings from the Bible.
My second attempt was at the Vigil service on 4th August, as we marked the exact time 100 years ago that war was declared. You can read that sermon as well.
Thirteen thousand years ago on the edge of the Sahara desert, a group of archers attacked a neighbouring village. They killed a number of the inhabitants, leaving their flint arrowheads embedded in the bodies, presumably took what they wanted and escaped. And then returned over months or years to do the same. Over 60 people that we know of were killed during these raids.
7,500 years ago in the forests of northern Europe, approximately 34 people were tied up, killed with a blow to the head and buried in a mass grave. Those are about the earliest evidence with have of warfare. It’s not very common until people settled down in large villages, until they had enough land or things or people that another group might want to take. After that we read of groups of archers terrorising cities, the clash of kings in their chariots, the burning of the enemies’ towns.
In AD70, the Romans surrounded Jerusalem after four years of fighting in the province of Judea. They laid siege to the city for 7 months, digging a deep ditch and surrounding the city with their embankment. After 7 months the Romans were finally able to break through the remaining city walls. The Temple was destroyed, the city left in ruins, many were killed and the survivors were taken to Rome to be paraded through the streets.
And 40 years before it happened, Jesus wept over the city and told them what would happen. The judgement on Jerusalem was delivered in tears. Although the crowd had cheered for Jesus, had welcomed him as king, he had already been rejected by the leaders, and knew that he would be rejected by the people as well. So, weeping, Jesus tells his disciples what will happen. The people of Jerusalem had not chosen the way of peace. They had rejected the Prince of Peace, and now, inevitably, they were moving towards conflict and their destruction.
Jesus knew what was going to happen, but his solution had been rejected and death and destruction lay ahead. And as people gathered in concern and prayer 100 years ago today, on Monday 3rd August 1914, the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, stood up in the House of Commons and told the assembled MPs that war was all but inevitable. “can anybody set limits to the consequences that may arise out of it?” he asked. And how well we know the answer to that question.
There was debate at the time and there has been debate since over whether Sir Edward Grey as Foreign Secretary and the rest of the government could have done more to avoid war. Historians agree that there was a general feeling that there would be a European war, and a general under-estimating of how monumental the consequences would be. As people did when Jesus wept over Jerusalem, people didn’t recognise how devastating a conflict would be. And we have gone on failing to recognise the limits of war, we have gone on failing to recognise the importance of building a lasting peace.
And we have been affected and are still effected by that. And unfortunately, this is nothing new locally either. Church Gresley was on the frontline of battles between the Viking rulers of Northumbria and the kings of Mercia and Wessex. Ashby was besieged during the Civil War. The town of Swadlincote will have seen men march away to the Boer War and other conflicts before war was declared on Germany 100 years ago tomorrow.
The Great War, The War to end all Wars, the war that would be over by Christmas. Many of those who joined up saw their possible deaths as a sacrifice worth making – for their families, their country, perhaps even for ideals such as freedom. So, soldiers from Britain were joined by soldiers from across the British Empire. From Ireland, from the Caribbean, from Africa, India, other parts of Asia, Australia and New Zealand. They were often fighting for honour, for their country, for loyalty to the Empire or to George V, to show that they were the equal of the British, and so on.
The poem we heard by Rupert Brooke called ‘The Dead’ speaks of what the dead have left behind, human joys and care, sorrow and mirth, the beauty of the natural world, of music, of love and wonder. Instead, this is replaced with a cold frost, but a frost of unbroken glory and of shining peace. There is hope in this poem, even in the midst of death. That was shared by many at the start of the war, and far fewer by its end.
Brooke himself enlisted at the start of the war and wrote the poem soon after in the autumn of 1914. He died only a few months later in 1915 on the way to the ill-fated attack on Gallipoli.
There has, quite rightly, been debates over whether or not it was right to go into the First World War. There have been debates over the tactics used and the decisions made. And that’s right and proper. Because, one of the ideals that was strengthened by the war was that of democracy. One of the ideals that our commemoration of the 100th anniversary needs to inspire us to work for and guard.
Writing home in 1915 one of the Indian soldiers wrote “this is not war; it is the ending of the world.” And, of course, he was right. The first world war was in many ways the ending of the world. There were profound social and economic changes.
Empires collapsed. The republic of Germany was created. The Austro-Hungarian empire was no more. The British Empire never really recovered. In the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire was carved up. The Sykes-Picot agreement between the French and the British created the countries that we currently see. The Balfour declaration encouraged Jewish immigration leading to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
And now, 100 years after the ‘War to end all War’ we see conflicts in many different places. We see the destruction of Syria, the conflict in Iraq, the hostilities in Israel-Palestine. All, in some way or other created by the decisions that were made at the end of the Great War. Because, the peace that followed the Great War was flawed and led to many of the problems that we have wrestled with since. Some of these flaws were mistakes made from good intentions and some were due to self-interest or short-sightedness.
Psalm 36 starkly contrasts the evil of which people are capable with the goodness of God. They flatter themselves, they deceive and plot. They are blinded by their sin, by their own self-importance, by their lack of desire to do good and seek wisdom.
But, God’s love and faithfulness, we are promised reaches to the heavens. God is faithful, even when his people are unfaithful. And the reading from Isaiah reminds us of how God has dealt and is dealing with this contrast. It’s a reading I’m sure that many of us are familiar with from readings at Christmas carol services. Except that we often skip the bit in the middle at Christmas, the bit that speaks of the celebrations of men dividing the plunder, of the war that shattered the yoke that burdened them. There is a recognition that sometimes, sometimes, war is necessary. There is an understanding that the wickedness that surrounds and overpowers and oppresses can only be shaken off with force. We also recognise that our way of life is only possible because of the many, many people who died in the World Wars. And those of course, who have served since. But, hear the cautionary message, a reminder of the problems and limitations of war. We hear “every warrior’s boot used in battle, and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning”.
Instead, “to us a child is born … and he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”. The solutions of war can only ever be temporary. We see this most clearly with the benefit of 100 years distance. But we fail to see it clearly with conflicts closer in time and closer to home.
Jesus wept over Jerusalem seeing the looming war. The tears of the God of love, of the Prince of Peace still flow over the conflicts that are in our world, that mar our communities, that distort our lives. So, in honour of those who died in the conflicts of the last 100 years, and in recognition of the limits of war, let us seek God’s power. Let us seek the power of the Prince of Peace, so that we can work for peace, show God’s love, and weep over a warring world. Amen.