How do we respond to the tragedy of the First World War and the bravery shown by so many people? How can we remember properly? What should we be remembering anyway? As many people did across the country, we gathered in church to remember the ‘lights going out’ at 11pm on 4th August, the time 100 years ago that war was declared. This is an extended version of the sermon I gave as part of that Vigil Service.
I took the information on A A Milne from the excellent blogpost on the Captive Reader blog. On the Sunday, the local churches gathered together for a commemoration service, at which I also preached the sermon.
The prophet Isaiah, speaking in the 8th century BC, had seen his share of wars, conflicts and destruction. He was alive when there was a looming superpower threatening to destroy the kingdom of Judah. And yet, instead of looking forward to his kingdom becoming mighty enough to destroy this new enemy he looked forward to a time when people would “beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning-hooks”, a time when nation wouldn’t lift up a sword against nation, when no-one learned war.
A few centuries later, the prophet Joel said something similar. He too had seen times of death and destruction, of wars and powerful armies and the chaos and wilderness that they bring. Instead, he said “Rend your heart, not your clothing” and return to God, who is gracious, merciful and loving. Both Joel and Isaiah had seen war and wanted people to take a different path instead. They wanted people to seek the peace and justice of God instead. They looked forward to the day when people would return to God, would follow God’s paths and would be taught by him instead. But, alas, hundreds of years, thousands of conflicts, millions of deaths have occurred since. And so we gather here to remember 100 years since the start of the First World War.
Wilfred Owen joined the Manchester Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916. He served in the trenches of the Western Front, suffered concussion, was blown into the air by a trench mortar and spent several days, wounded and unable to move, on an embankment among what he thought were the remains of a fellow officer. He suffered what they called ‘shell shock’ and we would call Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. He was sent back to Britain, where he wrote or rewrote many of his poems, reflecting on his experiences. Showing great bravery, he returned to the war in August 1918. He was shot and killed in the Battle of the Sambre, on the 4th November 1918, just one week before the war ended. To compound the tragedy, his parents were informed of his death on Armistice Day, 11th November, the day the end of the war was declared.
One of the poems of his that we heard, Dulce et Decorum est, was a reaction against the attitude that sought to justify the death of so many millions. The poem ends with the Latin motto ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’ It’s not, as you might think, from the Bible, but from a Roman poet called Horace. It translates as “It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country”. It was often quoted, widely believed, and carved into the wall of the chapel at Sandhurst. But Owen felt that the experiences of the War revealed it as an ‘old lie’. Owen, like many others, fought not because he thought it was sweet and honourable to die for his country, but because he thought it was his duty to fight, because he thought it was the right thing to do to oppose the evil that confronted them. He wanted to strip away the easy thinking, the sentimentality, the myths, that he felt had led them into this terrible war.
The author of Winnie-the-Pooh, A A Milne, served during the First World War as an Army Officer, in the Royal Corps of Signals, and writing propaganda for Military Intelligence. Published in 1934, Milne wrote a book called The Honour of Peace, in which he wrote:
It is because I want everybody to think (as I do) that war is poison, and not (as so many think) an over-strong, extremely unpleasant medicine, that I am writing this book.
Writing from his first-hand experience, Milne was also critical of the sentimental attitudes towards war that had just about survived the Great War, and had grown as the memories of the war receded. Milne wanted to challenge beliefs about the purpose and value of war and stop the attitudes that had taken Britain into the First World War. He was also critical of the attitudes that were growing up around war memorials. He wrote:
We know […] that, of the casualties of the last war, not all were killed on the battlefield; that hundreds and thousands died painfully of wounds – in bed; that hundreds of thousands died slowly of gas-poisoning or disease – in bed. Yet the sentimentalist, knowing this, still visualises death in war as something which comes cleanly and swiftly and mercifully, leaving its victim no more time for awareness than is necessary for a last message to his mother.
Milne was adamant that there was no such thing as a just cause for war. At the end of the book, Milne accused the world’s leaders of lacking the imagination to bring about countries which agreed to universal peace. Milne even talked about the rise of fascism and argued that fascists would not be stupid enough to start another war. Because, he argues, whatever emerged from that conflict, would not include a fascist state.
It was hailed as a great book by many, but was also criticised by those who believed that there were causes worth fighting for. And then came the further rise of Nazi Germany and the Second World War. Milne wrote a new book, published in 1940, called The Honour of War. In this he wrote:
If anyone reads Peace With Honour now, he must read it with that one word HITLER scrawled across every page. One man’s fanaticism has cancelled rational argument.
And that of course is the challenge to us. It was the challenge that people met in very different ways. Let us hear their challenge that there are no easy answers, no one way of seeing these conflicts. And let that spur us on to strive for peace, strive to change our world for the better.
When war was declared at 11pm on 4th August 1914 there was a whole range of reactions. During the day there had been anti-war meetings and front page adverts in the papers urging Britain to remain out of the war. But, after war was declared, there were crowds of people celebrating in London late into the night. There was jubilation, as well as despair. There was idealism as well as horror. Many people volunteered, including those who were too young or too old. But, by January 1916, conscription had been introduced, as not enough volunteers were coming forward.
The death of Owen and the changes of heart of Milne help us to understand how hard and complex the decisions round war and peace are. They are reminders of the terrible decisions that we and our leaders are called to make, of the ways that we seek to make sense of bad situations.
“There is a time for peace and a time for war” wrote the author of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. Not that this is particularly what God desires. But, the truths that the Bible tells us is that we live in a fallen, flawed world where our motives are mixed and our understanding is partial at best. But the witness of the Bible and of countless lives is that we can return to the Lord our God who is gracious and merciful, who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
So, then, as we remember the start of the war tonight, as we mark the anniversaries of battles over the next 4 years, how will that change us? What is the challenge that Owen and countless others lay before us? How will we seek to shine as lights in the darkness?
The apostle Paul wrote “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” Like the Old Testament prophets, Paul saw that the answer to these challenges came in the person of God, came in the coming of God’s kingdom. This isn’t simply about belief in God, but about the change that God can make in us and our world. War and the memory of war can remind us of the challenges that we face, of the call in the strength of God to let our lights shine in darkness. Amen.