Make it real when you remember

In July 1914 the family of Winston Churchill were on holiday at Overstrand near Cromer. Winston, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was obliged to return to London.  On 1 August he wrote to his wife Clemmie, ‘my darling, there is still hope although the clouds are blacker and blacker. Germany is realizing, I think, how great are the forces against her and is trying tardily to restrain her idiot ally. We are working to soothe Russia. But everybody is preparing swiftly for war. And at any moment now the stroke may fall. We are ready.’

Monday 3 August was a Bank Holiday and the resorts of the county were crowded with trippers. It was difficult to realise that we were on the verge of war. But throughout the evening of Tuesday 4 August crowds gathered around the telegraph and newspaper offices as the ultimatum deadline to Germany demanding respect for Belgian neutrality drew near. When it expired at 11pm Churchill flashed the fateful signal to all naval ships and establishments ‘Commence hostilities against Germany.’ In many places, the streets rang with patriotic songs, drink flowed, streamers were thrown and flags waved.

Randolph Churchill, then a boy of three, later remarked ‘one day we were told that war had come. We looked out to sea expecting that German ships would soon come into view but nothing happened, except that my father could not come down from London. We children were all disappointed - no Germans and no Papa.’   

One hundred years ago tomorrow, the Great War began, ‘Don’t cheer you don’t know what you are in for’, said a doctor to reveling crowds in Holt. How right he was. No one could have foreseen the magnitude of the horror that was to come.

There has been a difference of opinion about how the war should be remembered.  Surely one task is to make the war real, not to revel in blood and gore, but to take in its true nature. We know about it through books, reports and films, through music and poetry. But it is a distant conflict. We are desensitized to the horrors of the Great War, by sepia photographs and the unnaturally fast-moving and brief newsreels. Black and white sanitizes images of casualties, deprived of the redness of the blood.  We are further distanced from the war by the volume of the numbers, by the hundreds of thousands killed at the Somme, by the millions killed in the war as whole. We cannot relate to these numbers.

But we can relate to individuals. Because those huge numbers were made up of individuals: individual people who were killed and wounded and bereaved. On our War Memorial there are 169 names, of whom all bar six have been identified. We know where they lived, who their parents were, those who were married, where they worked, those who left children fatherless. We know what many of them looked like. All of these details help to make them real, more than just initials and surnames on a memorial.

The central act of Christian worship is an act of remembrance, that is what we do Sunday after Sunday, day after day in the Mass. We make it real when we remember that on the night before he was betrayed Jesus took bread and wine and told his disciples that this was his body and blood given for them. And they should do the same in remembrance of him. Army chaplains at the front did just that.

We must remember. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. The remembrance of this war should fill us with a disgust of conflict, and give an increased urgency to our prayers for peace. Some of the men from our war memorial died and are buried in Basra, in Baghdad, and even in Gaza, in a cemetery that despite their troubles had been carefully looked after by its Palestinian caretakers. What state is it in now?

The Prophet Isaiah expressed a vision of the infinite generosity of God, that is extended to all, rich and poor. Come to me, listen to me, God says and your soul will live.  Were we to really do that and pursue the ways of peace, then the horrors of war could be confined to the history books. War is not the way of God, there is no war that is a holy war. All wars could cease, but man continues to wage them, at a terrible cost.