“Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise. But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born…but these also were godly people, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.” Ecclus.44.8-10
Every year we are called to remember. Remember Arras, Passchendaele, Verdun, Gallipoli and the Somme. Remember Dunkirk, El Alamein, the Normandy beaches, the Battle of Britain. Remember Dresden, Nagasaki and Burma, Remember the Clydebank Blitz and many other sacrifices on the home front. Remember Palestine and Korea.
In truth, I can’t remember any of them. I’m too young. I’m just old enough to remember the barren rocks of Aden, or at least Andy Stewart singing about them.
And then in more recent times, the Falkland Islands, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not just the First World War we need to remember …although this year we gave it a special place in the centenary year of the Armistice that ended the Great War of 1914-18. T
Yet there’s no veteran left with a personal memory of it. But there are some things I do remember. And many people will have similar memories. I remember my grandfather standing at the war memorial with his medals. Left school at 14 and went to sea fishing and when his boat was requisitioned in 1914 he lied about his age, not out of any noble sentiment but simply to keep his job because what else was he to do? He served on the Northern Patrol in the RNR. I remember plenty of older women who lived alone, who lost out on a family life because there weren’t enough men left to go round. I knew men who had spent most of the Second World War in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
With the wonders of the internet I’ve recently got to know more about family members who were involved in the First World War. Like my wife’s grandfather who was a crew-member of a 60 year old wooden ex whaler requisitioned for a trip to Archangel. She wasn’t fit to be sent to the White Sea, it would have been a risk sending her to Whiting Bay. She foundered off Orkney with the loss of all hands. Nobody knew what had happened until the bodies were washed up on an Orkney beach. But Daniel Duncan Gillies was far from the only man in that war whose life was counted as expendable in the name of a greater good.
Through the wonders of the internet I got to know my mother’s Uncle John. He was sent to the Adriatic on a steam drifter, one of more than 40 which attempted to block the Otranto Straits with wire mesh nets, to hinder the passage of U Boats. Their peashooter guns were no match for two battle-cruisers that were sent to break up the party in 1917, but at least the Austro Hungarian captains were gentlemen. They ordered the crews to abandon ship before they blew the drifters out of the water. Uncle John, just 21, complied and was taken prisoner. The drifter next in line was the famous Gowanlea, whose Captain Joseph Watt from Gardenstown was awarded the Victoria Cross for refusing the invitation to get into the small boat, and opened fire with his four pounder on the might of the Austro Hungarian Navy.
Strangely enough, he too survived the war. They coped with the memory in different ways. VC Joe as he was called did his best to forget about it. They said he threw his medal in a drawer with odds and ends. Uncle John took to drink and who could blame him? He never married, probably no woman could have taken him on. He went back to the fishing and forty years later he missed his footing and landed in the water at Kinlochbervie, and drowned. A victim of the war? Most certainly, although you won’t find his name on any war memorial. Each and every family has their own stories.
It’s only now that we have come to understand the toll of war on a person’s mental health. I see this in my work at the Coming Home Centre for Veterans, many who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress. This charity was set up with returning ex-service people from Afghanistan in mind, but we get them from Afghanistan, the Falklands, Northern Ireland, even as far back as the Second World War, all affected with issues that will never leave them.
We owe such a debt to the men and women who were called upon to defend our freedom. Many died. Many who survived were permanently scarred. Some just managed to get on with it. Whether at first hand, or at second hand, we need to remember, and honour those whose toil and sacrifice should not be forgotten. It’s good to re tell their stories. It’s right to remember. But realistically, sooner or later, most of the memories and stories that you and I have, will die.
The most outstanding stories will always be in the history books of course, for those so inclined to read them…but the human stories, the snippets, the incidents that were trivial in the greater scheme of things and had little interest except for the immediate family, will be forgotten.
That is why we need to remember one more thing.
That important thing we need to remember was understood by a First World War Chaplain, the Rev David Railton when he noticed in 1916 in a back garden in northern France, a grave with a rough cross on which were pencilled the words "An Unknown British Soldier". In August 1920 he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, through whose energies a new memorial was created.
The remains were brought back to this country and on the morning of 11th November the coffin was placed on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses and began its journey through the crowd-lined streets, making its first stop in Whitehall where the Cenotaph was unveiled by King George V. The King placed his wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin. His card read "In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known; as dying, and behold they live. George Rex, Imperator. Then the carriage made its way to the north door of Westminster Abbey.
While the Cenotaph unveiling was taking place, the Choir inside the Abbey sang, "O Valiant Hearts" just as my congregation did on Remembrance Sunday. After two minutes of silence, the congregation sang the hymn, “O God our help in ages past”, just as my congregation did. The body of the Unknown Warrior may be from any of the three services, Army, Navy or Air Force, and from any part of the British Isles, Dominions or Colonies and represents all those who died who have no other memorial or known grave.
The Unknown Warrior reminds us of a great truth that inspires our heartfelt wonder at any time and in any age…that even the nameless and the faceless and the most vulnerable; even those considered expendable by generals and admirals, are held for all eternity, at the heart of God. For now, we remember, but eventually we shall forget. God never forgets. God’s love never fails. Praise be to our loving God, who will never fail us, nor forget any one of us.
There is nothing we can say or do that will explain or make sense of a war in which over 16 million people died. We can learn to deal with it…we can devise coping mechanisms…we can resolve to act in various ways to promote peace and avoid conflict in our personal lives. We can also appreciate the value of formal remembrance, as we do in our churches at remembrance-tide.
But because there is a limit to any of our human coping abilities, even for the strongest and the most robust, we who are wise, turn to God. God who is strong when we are frail, God who is wise and who understands when we are weak and fall…God whose love encompasses all human souls, from the greatest to the least, even as human memory fades and grows dim.