We shall remember them

Last year we all, our community and the country, made such an effort for Remembrance. The 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War saw us uniting to remember those millions who died, and especially those who died from this community of Caterham. The ghostly figures of the “here but not here” installation appeared in church for the first time and we made the wonderful poppy display which we have been able to use again. These acts of commemoration of the centenary of that war will be used for years to come. 

But here we are in 2019 and the centenary years of World War One have passed. It is now 100 years since the first Remembrance Event – then called Armistice Day to commemorate the signing of the Armistice on 11th November 1918. That first commemoration was held on the 11th November in 1919 in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and included the 2 minutes silence for the first time. Such ceremonies have been held every year since, moving to the Sunday nearest the 11th November during the 2nd World War, in order that arms production was not interrupted. There seems to be a certain irony there. 

It is important to look back at how people felt in 1919. There had been an appalling loss of life and the feeling was that this Great War, as they called it, was the war to end all wars, a phrase coined by the writer HG Wells in a book he had written in 1914. There was a feeling that this war had been so appalling that there must not be another, and this is reflected in a prayer from the Church of England for the first commemorations of the end of that war:

Let us remember before God the solemn responsibility now resting upon the statesmen of the world, and pray that God may guide them by his spirit of counsel and of strength, and that by their endeavours peace and justice, freedom and order, may be established among all nations.

As people remembered and honoured all who had died, their prayers were that wars would be no more – the horror of this Great War was such that they prayed and hoped that no one would go to war again. 

Of course, we know those hopes were not to be, and just 20 years later war broke out again. The rise of fascism in Europe and an expansionist, totalitarian Empire in the East, meant that between 1939 and 1945 the world was at war again. 

Each year we gather to remember those who have died in those two World Wars and in all wars since then. Our country has fought and lost military personnel in Palestine, Malaya, Suez, the Falklands, Afghanistan, Iraq and many other places since the end of World War 2. Resisting aggression, and working for freedom and justice, can mean at times, as a country, we have felt compelled to go to war. Some wars may have seemed to be more justified than others, but our forces continue to do their duty and risk their lives to preserve our freedoms; and that is why it is important we continue to come together to remember those who died and to commit ourselves to work for freedom and justice throughout the world and to pray for peace.

75 years ago, 1944, was a crucial year in the 2nd World War and marked its turning point. The Royal British Legion has asked this year that we remember three particular engagements in that crucial year – Monte Casino in Italy, D-Day on the shores of Normandy and the Battle of Kohima and Imphal in the hill country of pre-partition India near the border with Burma. In the words of the British Legion they ask us to remember “the service and sacrifice, friendship and collaboration of the men and women of Britain, the Commonwealth and Allied nations who fought together 75 years ago.”

They are asking us to remember we were not alone, but that many nations co-operated to defeat the forces of fascism and totalitarianism. 

The first war graves I ever visited were at Monte Casino. It was back in the 1980’s and we were on an organised Italian tour. To be honest the war graves of Monte Casino were not at the top of my list of things I wanted to see, but actually have become the most memorable part of that holiday. The sea of beautiful white headstones in the Italian sun moved me immeasurably. I learnt about the very brutal battle, where 55,000 allied soldiers died. The British graves were of course Commonwealth graves, and it brought home what a united effort this was with soldiers buried there from Australia, India, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa as well as the United Kingdom. We should remember too that over 1000 soldiers of the Free Polish Forces died on the Allies’ side at Monte Casino, and it was the Polish forces who actually took the German held monastery at the summit of the mountain. The Allies lost 105,000 in the whole of the Italian campaign, which culminated in the capture of Rome. These were the D-day dodgers of the song:

We’re the D-Day Dodgers out in Italy
Always on the vino, always on the spree.
Eighth Army scroungers and their tanks
We live in Rome – among the Yanks.
We are the D-Day Dodgers, over here in Italy.

The soldiers felt forgotten at the time, felt that their success in pushing back the Germans in Italy was overshadowed by the D-Day landings in Normandy. Their sarcastic ballad has this touching verse:

When you look ’round the mountains, through the mud and rain
You’ll find the crosses, some which bear no name.
Heartbreak, and toil and suffering gone
The boys beneath them slumber on
They were the D-Day Dodgers, who’ll stay in Italy. 

D-Day is still more well-known and remembered. Back in June of this year there were many commemorations. You may remember that two 95-year olds, who parachuted into Normandy back in 1944, did it again this year! They reminded me that my uncle Walter was amongst those who parachuted into Normandy. The estimate is that 4,413, mainly American, British and Canadians died on the Normandy beaches, but there were many more casualties. And in all 13 different countries provided forces for that invasion. It was a truly co-operative venture.

But now to Kohima and Imphal, which the British Legion have also asked us to remember this year. I wonder how many of you have even heard of these battles, and yet it is Kohima which gives us the remembrance epitaph:

“When you go home tell them of us and say; for your tomorrow we gave our to-day” 

This is the epitaph said at every remembrance service. It was inscribed on the monument to the fallen at Kohima, which was unveiled 75 years ago this month.

The battles of Kohima and Imphal in 1944 successfully prevented the Japanese invading India and were the beginning of the defeat of Japan. What the British Legion have particularly asked us to remember about these battles, is that at Kohima and Imphal one of the most ethnically diverse Armies in history came together to win one of the most remarkable victories of the war.  The 14th Army, commanded by General William Slim, consisted of soldiers from Britain, pre-partition India, so from the countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; there were Gurkhas and African troops from Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. This 14th Army has been called the forgotten army, because their victories received little coverage back in the UK and their crucial role in turning the tide of the war is often overlooked. Sixteen and half thousand of that forgotten army lost their lives at Imphal and Kohima. 

Today on this Remembrance Day 2019, of course we remember all who have died in war, but remember especially those from all over the world who died in the battles that turned the tide of the 2nd World War in 1944.

As we look back 75 years to those significant events of 1944, we can see that many nations made up the Allied forces. It wasn’t just the Americans and us! We were joined by soldiers from all over our Commonwealth and the then British Empire, 10,000 had come from the West Indies in the early years of the war to join the British forces. And there were other friends like the free Polish army. There was co-operation and mutual admiration amongst the allied troops; and the British Legion has asked us to remember that many communities, whose ancestors served side by side, now live side by side in a multicultural Britain.

In the second world war the Allied forces came together to defeat two very evil regimes. It reminds us that we must always be vigilant about extremist and intolerant views. Remember after the EU referendum there was awful graffiti daubed on a Polish community centre, and many individuals were verbally abused because they were members of ethnic minorities. Within political parties there are issues with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and the number of reported hate crimes in this country, the majority to do with race, have risen significantly in the last few years. Later in this service we will commit ourselves to work for a just future for all humanity. Whatever our differences of opinion in this country, and they may become rather stark in the coming weeks, our memories today of the sacrifices of 1944 remind us that totalitarian regimes fuelled by intolerance, were defeated because of the contribution of many nations and nationalities working together, serving side by side towards a common goal. 

We need to hold on to the memories of those who gave their todays for our tomorrows. The Kohima epitaph stands as a reminder that the army that suffered those great losses at Kohima was one of the most ethnically diverse armies every assembled. We thank those of every nationality, creed and race who fought for freedom and justice. As a tribute to them, may we learn to live in harmony with those who are different and build a world of peace and justice. Amen.