Yesterday was Remembrance Sunday in the United Kingdom. At St John’s we have a special Service of Remembrance culminating in the two minutes’ silence at the war memorial. Here’s what I said.
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 place, 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 – they wanted the soldiers to make war, not peace – 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. Democracy and freedom of speech are often the first casualties of war. 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? It’s only a game, after all.
1914 is a long time ago. 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 growing recognition of the importance of Remembrance. Even the dancers on Strictly Come Dancing wear specially designed poppies on their dancing costumes. And when Cookie Monster, one of the characters from Sesame Street, appeared on the One Show on BBC Television this week even he was wearing a poppy. Despite the fact that since Cookie Monster doesn’t actually wear clothes the poppy was technically pinned to his skin. Ouch! The BBC said they gave Cookie Monster a poppy to wear because they feared people might complain if he didn’t have one.
Well, you can’t have missed the news that the England and Scotland football teams made the decision – and one might have thought the rather innocuous, but for people in this country nevertheless important, decision – to wear poppies on black arm bands for Friday’s World Cup Qualifier. After all, who could possibly object? Football’s only a game, after all.
Who would have thought that, a century later, 98 years after the end of the First World War and 95 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. Who could possibly object, on Remembrance Day, to showing such a mark of respect and remembrance.
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 poppies in any way, shape or form on the England shirt. In the end both teams decided to ignore FIFA’s objections, and so we wait to see what FIFA will do, whether they will issue a fine or a points deduction. Football, after all, is just a game. Okay, I know that actually for many of us football is more than just a game – but remembrance is hugely important to us as a nation and it was surely right for the two national teams to stick to their decision. Sometimes it is right to break the rules! And hopefully common sense will prevail at FIFA.
Remembrance is important to us. The effects of the Great War had a great impact upon people, and the practice of wearing poppies for Remembrance which began in 1921, inspired by the famous poem In Flanders Field by John McCrae, is our way of showing that we value this annual opportunity to remember, to honour, those who have given their lives not just in the Great War but in all the other conflicts our nation has been involved in.
We can see on our war memorial, where we will be having our act of remembrance shortly, the names of so many of our community recorded – those who died in two world wars. There are a lot of them. I’m not going to read them all out this morning – instead I want to pick just one of those names from the last year of the Great War for us to reflect upon as an example of why we remember not just those who have given their lives recently, or those we have known, but even those who died a century ago. I’ve picked this particular name because I have had personal contact with his family.
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 signed by someone in the congregation with the surname of Marshall – the signature is rather difficult to decipher. 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.
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 in 2010 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 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 – we’ve never been able to find out.
George may have died 98 years ago – but he is still important to his family. The legacy of the Great War is still with us. And in the same way the legacy of wars since will stay with us for generations to come.
And that is why we continue to remember.
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.
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. And each name is a piece in jigsaw that makes up the story of our community here in Caterham Valley. 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 and communities, 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 that has so often only been won through deep personal sacrifice.