For the Fallen
They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old;
age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning,
we will remember them.
Poem BY Laurence Binyon 1914
Stirring words to remember the war dead – we will remember them – and as we have said in our litany of Remembrance today, we also remember those who have suffered the consequences of war, not directly on the battlefield, but in other ways too, because war actually permeates so much of life for so many.
When that poem was written, in 1914, what we now call the first world war had really only just begun and people at home were just beginning to experience the shock of loved ones, mainly men, although women also went out mainly as nurses, sons, brothers, fathers and uncles, going off bravely, at this stage voluntarily, perhaps naively, idealistically, believing they would be back soon, but instead of coming home triumphant, being killed or horribly wounded, physically and mentally.
The poem immortalises their beautiful youthfulness, describing their homeland as their mother, they still being a part of her even in death. By the end of that war, the idealism had worn off, and the shock, the trauma of the level of carnage, left people appalled. The wish for it never to happen again inspired this annual Remembrance day memorial which is, now, a time to recognise the tragedy of all wars, including ones which are going on today. At first, there was a hope that, it being so catastrophic, everyone might learn not to let that happen again – it was called the war to end all wars.
So today, in remembering, we may well think of our own experiences, the impact warfare has had on each of us and on our families. We might look around for a moment, with respect for one another and with tenderness, recognising that even without knowing one another’s’ stories, we do know that for some here, the trauma is very raw, very real, in a way which makes me hesitate to go on. The litany is describing people in our community – us.
For me, speaking from my own family story, as I think I need to speak from my own experience, I do have family members who I remember, because they risked or gave their lives in the first world war, or were injured. But it’s not just about memory, it is also a time to think about what the litany said – the consequences of war more widely in society, in community, in family life. The impact of World War 1 and also WW2 has had an impact on me very directly – the trauma has been very real in the family system, it’s haunted us, and I am still seeking the healing of it, even now.
Let me talk personally for a little while.
First, the remembrance of my two grandfathers.
1. Here, I have a little New Testament with ‘fight the good fight’ inscribed inside by the minister who gave it to my grandfather. Aged 18, he was conscripted to fight – it says in the back, in his handwriting, ‘France’: he survived the horrors of trench warfare in France. Beneath that, it says ‘India’, because having survived France, he was sent to India.
He was serving alongside Indian soldiers who at that time were still in the British empire. This did affect him and his attitude. It affected his attitude to migrants coming to live in his city from commonwealth countries after the war. He refused to talk about the war, it was too much for us to hear. All this affected me.
2. Here, I have a wallet, which my other Grandfather was carrying on the battlefields of France. His Methodist minister inspired him and some cousins not to fight. So they went as stretcher bearers, to rescue the injured from the front line. He still got injured, same as the soldiers, a mine went off and shattered his leg.
In the wallet is a photo of his then fiancée, who became my Grandmother. Her picture was there on the battlefield with him.
3. Here is another photo of my Grandmother and her three sisters. Her brother isn’t in the picture but he was a soldier too – another story. My Grandmother nursed her injured husband, brought up children and also worked to keep them from poverty. Being disabled he lost his job – there was no disability benefits or state organised support of the war wounded at that stage, and not a lot of sympathy for those who refused to fight.
Nancy had a boyfriend who died in the war and grief stricken, she never married.
Vin, she married George, who was a soldier. We believe he had PTSD, which he controlled during his working life, but on retirement it seems to have overcome him. In a sudden rage he killed aunty Vin, so she too, is a victim of war. Her horrified family are victims of war. This shocked our family to the core – impact of war.
This is just some of the stories of some members of my family, one working class family from Leicester. Poverty because of disability, unpaid nursing care by women in the family, loss of an intended marriage partner, mental illness, extreme domestic violence … while these are my stories, part of my remembrance of war and the effects of a war that is seemingly distant to me, I believe they are universal, and here amongst us. I imagine many have similar stories in their families –
Ordinary women and men bearing the wounds, the unhealed traumas, in their families, long after the poppies have grown on the battlefields, left to just cope. But it leads to a sick, broken society doesn’t it, one that doesn’t know what to do with the weight of emotion, of trauma.
The place of religion in all this is curious isn’t it – handwritten in my Grandfather’s Bible, the encouragement to fight. In the words of the other grandfather’s Minister, the encouragement to not fight. In the women, devoted loving service, sorrowing, the coping with the consequences, carrying the weight of earning a living as well as caring for family – quietly mopping up the mess – trying to soothe the nightmares and rages, trying to protect the children. Mary weeping at the foot of the cross.
I go back to the readings for today – Daniel, which was written at a truly dreadful period of the Jewish people’s history, where the outlook seemed so bleak.
‘At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.
And then Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, kind of saying, ‘war … yes there are wars and more wars, and this is just the beginning – the birthpangs.’
The bleakness, it’s hard to know what to do with it.
So what are we to do? Remembering is such a sorrowful act, necessary, and heavy on our hearts.
I think the first act is the remembrance, and in doing this, not putting it all on ancestors and events in the past, but to acknowledge it is here now. And then to acknowledge how that makes us feel.
How we feel, is the key. What happened to my grandparents, and also to my parents, who were both children during the second world war, and I think to many in those generations, was that they learned to hide their true feelings. It was too awful, too frightening, to not know if your loved ones were still alive of if a bomb was going to blow your home up. The way to get through, was taught in phrases like ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘soldier on’, ‘chin up’ – don’t show weakness, don’t give in to the grief and fear – don’t show it. This might help in a survival situation, but long-term, by not being allowed to acknowledge pain and fear, I think all the other feelings get shut down too. It becomes difficult to express love and tenderness, it’s even seen as a weakness. When this becomes someone’s identity – being someone who does not show real human emotion, humanity, the pain or the love, it easily multiplies in society – a society which cannot communicate love because it cannot acknowledge the pain. What looks like an unfeeling society – actually a war-shocked society, it doesn’t know what to do.
So that’s why it’s important not just to remember, but to consider the wider consequences now – and to look around and accept that in our community, here amongst us, in our own hearts, there is feeling. There is feeling, because we have hearts, we are getting in touch with our humanity and through this with divinity – that is what brought us through the door. What we encounter as we file up to the altar.
I think the love is in us, when we sit and look around at one another and recognise that we are all touched by this, and that this is a seeding of compassion amongst us. The stories of my family, they are not unlike the stories of other families, although some have suffered more directly and more terribly. While there is no competition, for who has suffered most, there is a competition for who can compete in love.
I haven’t said so much about the scriptures today, but in asking what can we do about the bleakness, the pain and the fear, the nugget, to me, is hidden away in the reading from Hebrews. There’s no grand plan, no great heroic gesture, we don’t really know what it means, to think about warrior angels and birthpangs and what is to come. The scripture today is very simple, in keeping with what Jesus said about kingdom values – the kingdom of God is in tiny things which grow, like seeds or like yeast in dough.
Let me remind you, what Hebr 10:24 says, ‘And let us consider how to provoke one another, (or perhaps in the spirit of Romans 12, to compete with one another), in love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, but encouraging one another…’
This may seem a small thing, but it’s the kingdom values we are looking for – yes, provoke one another, to challenge one another to love and good deeds: encourage one another to love.
This is the fitting memorial of the dead and of the victims of war, to speak about the unspeakable, to name our feelings, to dare to talk about love – because this grows the kingdom of God.