Today, of course, was Remembrance Sunday. We held our usual service of Remembrance concluding with the two minute silence at the war memorial and the laying of wreaths. Here is my sermon.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As any general will tell you, the last thing you want is a soldier who won’t obey orders. When you’re engaged in warfare, discipline is vital. Which is why the Christmas Truce of 1914 caused the generals of both sides such a headache. During the week leading up to Christmas, groups of German soldiers on the one hand and mainly British soldiers on the other began to sing Christmas carols across the trenches. In places the trenches were only yards apart. As Christmas Day approached, soldiers of both sides started to climb out of their trenches, walking across no-man’s land. They talked with each other and exchanged gifts. Joint burial ceremonies took places, and meetings often ended with carol-singing. And on Christmas Day, most famously perhaps, games of football took place between the opposing sides – those who days earlier had been engaged in the most awful conflict.
Perhaps it was the football that was taking things too far. For this outbreak of peace among the rank and file – and it’s believed that around 100,000 men took part – was something that the high commands of both sides could not allow, and in future years orders went out forbidding any such fraternisation with the enemy. It would be the politicians who would determine if and when peace came about, not the soldiers in the trenches. And so – with just one or two exceptions – the Christmas Truce with its games of football was never repeated. Who’d have thought that football could be so controversial?
1914 is a long time ago, further back than anyone but the barest few can now remember. And it’s not that many years past that people started to suggest that the need for Remembrance Day was past and perhaps it was time that it was brought to an end. And yet there has been, over the past few years, a surge of interest in Remembrance. So much so that the British Legion expect to sell a record number of poppies this year. So much so that even the dancers on Strictly Come Dancing wear specially designed poppies on their dancing costumes. So much so that the England Football Team made the decision – and one might have thought the rather innocuous decision – to wear poppies embroidered on their shirts in yesterday’s match against Spain. After all, who could possibly object? Who would have thought that, almost a century later, 93 years after the end of the First World War and 90 years after poppies were first used as a symbol of remembrance that football could still cause such controversy. Who would have thought that the legacy of a conflict that happened so long ago would still be with us – and display itself so dramatically once more in our national game.
Well – just in case you missed the news this week – the big story was that FIFA, the world governing body for football, objected most strongly. They forbade the wearing of embroidered poppies on the England shirt and, just in case the England team decided to wear them anyway, had instructed the referee to abandon yesterday’s game if any England players sported a poppy.
Letters from the Prime Minister and Prince William ensued – and within an hour of those letters being made public FIFA gave in, and agreed that while poppies could not be embroidered on the shirts they could be worn on a black armband. Common sense prevailed.
The effects of the First World War had a great impact upon people, and the practice of wearing poppies for Remembrance began in 1921, inspired by the famous poem In Flanders Field by John McCrae, a doctor who served with the Canadian Armed Forces. And today that tradition is just as strong as ever. The legacy of that war extends to far beyond the dates in the history books. In 1913 George Barden, a member of the congregation here at St John’s emigrated to Canada. He left behind his parents and five brothers. As a parting gift he was given a copy of the Book of Common Prayer dated 22nd November 1922 and signed by someone with the surname of Marshall – the signature is rather difficult to decifer. After war broke out he joined up and served, just like John McCrae, with the Canadian Forces, as far as we know on the Western Front.
During the war each issue of the Caterham Valley Parish Magazine carried a roll of honour, recording the names, dates of death, and a few personal details of each member of the local community who died. The November 1918 issue carries among others the details: George Frederick Barden, Canadians, September 30th. He died just six weeks before the end of the war. His family were more fortunate than some. The magazine goes on to say: Mr and Mrs Barden have our sympathy in their bereavement none the less that they still have five sons serving their country in the great cause. George Barden’s name is recorded on our war memorial where we will shortly holding two minutes silence and laying wreaths as we remember.
I mention George Barden because he also serves to show that even this long after the event – when the First World War seems to be so much history – it still has a legacy. Because last year I was contacted by George Barden’s great niece seeking more information about him. She and her husband live in Germany where they now work with the forces. Her husband is, I think I’ve got this right, an ex-serviceman. And following up on the information she was subsequently able to give me I was able to send her a photo of George’s name on the war memorial and a photocopy of the entry in the magazine. She still has the prayer book that he was given – and I know this is a long shot, but if anyone has any ideas about who the Mr or Mrs Marshall who gave the prayer book to George was, his great niece would love to know. George may have died 93 years ago – but he is still important to his family. The legacy of the First World War is still with us.
And that is why we continue to remember – and remember not just those who died and those who suffered in a great war nearly a century ago or another world war that ended nearly 70 years ago now. There have been so many conflicts since then in which so many served and died and so many lost family and friends and comrades. In fact, there has only been one year since 1945 that no British serviceman died on active service – 1968. And we are only too aware of the recent and current conflicts that our forces have been involved in – Iraq, Afhganistan, Libya – as well as others. We continue to remember. Because George Barden’s life, and his untimely death, aren’t simply part of history – they are a part of the story of his family here and now today. Each name on our memorial represents a family whose story has been affected and continues to be affected by war. The lives of all those who have died in the wars of the past century are still a part of the stories today of their families and friends, which is why we gather each year to remember and to honour those who have given their lives for their country. Those who, over the years (and still today), have defended our freedoms – all too often at the ultimate cost of their own life.
And it is why, after the silence and the laying of wreaths, as part of the Remembrance Service we commit ourselves to making a difference to the future of our world and give thanks and pray for those who serve our country today. Because we know that war and its horrors have a far-reaching legacy, a legacy that stretches down the years for those involved. And because the legacy we wish for our children and our children’s children is a world where everyone can enjoy peace and justice and security.