10 November 2019
Revd Nicholas Mercer
On Palm Sunday in 2010 my family visited my aunt in her Nursing Home on the outskirts of Ripon.
As we were talking she started to cry
We, obviously, wanted to know what had upset her but she began talking, in a confused way, about the “awful loss of life”
I thought it was World War One
But when we’d heard a little more we realised that she was talking about the Battle of Towton
That critical battle in the Wars of the Roses in 1461 when 28,000 men lost their lives
It is the biggest single loss of life in British Military History
Intrigued by this episode, we took a detour to Tadcaster on our way home to Dorset
We found a small cross on the side of the road, largely obscured by a hedge
Despite this being the biggest loss of English life/in a single day/ in British Military History, no one took much notice
If it wasn’t for the peculiar outburst in the Nursing Home, I too would have passed it by
Today is Remembrance Sunday.
It is called Remembrance Sunday because it about “remembering”
“the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts”
This year, for the first time it also includes remembering civilian victims of war including victims of terrorism
However, it is a very tall order to say “We will remember them”
A time span of over 100 years/46 different conflicts/The death or wounding of approximately 1.6 million of our servicemen and women/3,500 men, women and children killed in terror attacks since 1970
Furthermore, for the first time, WW1 has passed the 100 years mark and will, inevitably, fade into the distance.
What precisely are we remembering?
Despite the breadth of time and conflicts, I think there are some common denominators
First and foremost, we remember the astonishing acts of courage by our servicemen and women.
As most of you know, I was the Rector of the Falkland Islands before I came to Bolton Priory
The legacy of the Falklands War permeates the whole of their society
The war lasted just ten weeks /but in the anniversary whilst I was there/I visited the site of almost every engagement
From Goose Green to Mount Longdon – Ajax Bay to Bluff Cove
I took no less than twelve memorial services
Memories of courage abound
Colonel H Jones at Goose Green, Sgt Ian Mackay on Mount Longdon, Major John Kizeley on Tumbledown, to name but a few
But for me, the most striking example of courage was Mount Harriet
The car park on the side of the road was the assembly point, 37 years earlier for 42 Commando, who went on to assault the enemy positions on the mountain.
There was a very helpful map in the car park, and you could easily visualise the attack
In the bitter cold of winter – the sheer raw courage that was needed to fight through the enemy positions was astonishing
Courage is quite rightly recognised with awards of gallantry but there are vast numbers of men and women whose courage goes unrecognised in all conflicts
And we salute their courage today and across the years.
We also remember the sick and wounded
My last post in the Army was at the Land Warfare Centre in Warminster,
My office used to look out over a parade square where dismembered young soldiers used to carry out their fitness training after returning from Afghanistan
Limbs don’t grow back – those injuries last a lifetime – and so does our responsibility
But it is not just the physical injuries we need to remember
A few years ago, I attended to a talk from a solicitor who had acted for many soldiers from the Falklands war
Men who had come back from war, mentally scarred
Those who never worked again, lived in squats, turned to alcohol, whose marriages had broken down
Although it is hard to give an exact figure, it is estimated that more Falkland veterans have committed suicide than died in the conflict itself
Such are the hidden ravages of war which we should also remember today
Mental scars may be invisible but they are equally pernicious
Finally we need to remember all those who have been bereaved.
Again, like the injured and maimed, it is so easy to lose sight
“Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain, is one of the few accounts written from a female perspective – speaking for those who are left behind in war
In the case of Vera Brittain, her fiancée Roland Leighton was killed just two years after leaving Uppingham
Her brother was killed three years later
We remember the more recent wives, partners and parents
Sally Thornloe, Christina Schmidt, Reg Keys – to name but a few
But the Falklands war reminds us that loss goes on for far longer.
In my first parish, I used to visit a 96 year old parishioner in her tiny bungalow just around the corner from my house.
Her father died from his wounds occasioned from WW1 in 1927.
She had lived with the scars of war for 86 years
But of course, the reverse of all these acts of Remembrance are all equally true
Although we remember all our loved ones
But we generally don’t give much thought for those who might be similarly wounded or grieving on the other side of the conflict
The Argentine Mother whose conscript son was caught up in and killed in the most tragic of circumstances
The Iraqi Mother whose child was killed in an allied bombing attack
The Afghan mother whose husband, son and wider family were killed in a drone strike
We don’t remember – but we should
And by inverting Remembrance and looking at it from another perspective, we also reveal a weakness in our own acts of Remembrance
As Alan Webster, the late Dean of Westminster Abbey said after the Falklands War
“The traumas of modern war make a triumphalist service a contradiction in terms,”
If we are not careful, Remembrance can become triumphalist.
Full of pomp and pageantry and self-satisfaction.
On the day of Remembrance we also need to examine ourselves as a country
Always eager to go to war
Thirsting for a fight
Habitually abusing prisoners – which still stains our reputation
Breaking International Law
Never pausing to think that war debases us all
And so returning to my question about Remembrance and what that might mean for us in 2020
It means Remembering courage, the sick and wounded and the bereaved and making an especial effort to do so
The simple truth is that Remembrance becomes harder with the passage of time
It was ever thus – and passing the hundred year mark for the First World War is a timely reminder of the effluxion of time
Just like the Battle of Towton, our wars too will, similarly, fade into the distance
What is remarkable however/unlike our wars/is the remembrance of our Lord Jesus Christ
Despite the passage of time, not only is he remembered, but his words remain undimmed by the passing years.
Our reading from John’s Gospel seems so appropriate for Remembrance Sunday
Jesus Christ has been crucified:
He still bears the wounds, they still bleed.
However, despite this suffering, he is not angry, he is not bitter, he is not thirsting for revenge
Instead he says something quite remarkable:
“Peace be with you; receive the Holy Spirit; if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any they are retained”.
If we can put this into practice, then the truly remarkable act of Remembrance will be
Remembering the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ – 2000 years later.