by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge
As the centenary looms of the armistice that saw the end of hostilities on the Western Front, inevitably public attention will turn increasingly once again to those whom we remember and to why we remember them as we do. There will be commemorations in churches, in civic squares, and in other public spaces.
The two minute silence, which not all that long ago had fallen into disuse (except in remembrance services), is being kept again. Indeed, there has been a striking return of remembrance just in the last twenty years or so. When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, along with many of my friends I assumed that, over time, our willingness to mark Remembrance Sunday would simply fade away, as the veterans themselves of both world wars died out. My younger self would have been amazed at the return of remembrance.
In the summer I took my son to Belgium to see some of the First World War battlefields and sights. We went to Talbot House (Toc H) at Poperinghe, and also to the extraordinarily moving place there, just off the market square, where British deserters – now publicly pardoned – were incarcerated and then executed by firing squad. We went to the outstanding ‘In Flanders Field’ museum in the rebuilt Cloth Hall in Ypres, to a number of other museums and just some of the innumerable cemeteries that litter the landscape. And we also went to the ceremony of the last post at the Menin Gate. It’s an extraordinary testimony to the people of Ypres that at 8pm every night they sound the last post there, in memory of the dead. I didn’t expect to be moved as much as I was. It was raining, but hundreds of people gathered to pay their respects.
But what really struck me at the Menin Gate was the question of scale – over 35,000 names of those of the Commonwealth dead in Flanders whose bodies were never found, listed by regiment or unit. The number is overwhelming. The names cover practically every surface of that enormous monument – every name a life, an identity, the centre of a family’s relationships and hopes, a possibility that cannot now ever come to fruition, every name a parable of hope, loss and grief. And it may be tempting to think that this was a narrow demographic, nearly all the names young white men from the British Isles; that remains the abiding image so many of us continue to hold. But of course they’re names from an imperial, or alternatively international, army – there are not only English, Welsh, Scots and Irish names, but Indian, Nepalese, Caribbean, Canadian, African, Australian and New Zealand too.
That set me thinking, in the rain. We can expand this idea of who is commemorated there, or rather what kind of people they were, much further. We know, of course, that they were from all classes and professions. Some were titled, privately educated, privileged to their chinstraps; others were from the poorest and most disadvantaged groups. There are Christians of practically all denominations, atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews, commemorated there. There are many nations, but also different racial or ethnic identities. There would have been many we would now say suffered from learning disabilities or other then-undiagnosed ailments. The sheerly terrified, and the admired and courageous. Married and single, fathers and sons. Conservatives, Liberals, Labour. Straight, and gay – not that that term was used in that way, and not that being gay in the early twentieth-century was an easy or acceptable or openly-acknowledged thing to be.
It’s sometimes said that the First World War was a founding trauma of modern British experience, even, some say, a sort of ‘holocaust’ for this nation, though I doubt that that term can really be used here without some risk of misunderstanding. What stands out, nonetheless, is how indiscriminate the loss inflicted by war really was.
And that’s the point. Because if we’re commemorating the sacrifice of all of those who died in the war, without exception, then all of the characteristics I’ve listed above, and perhaps many others, somehow have to be included, as we include the people they marked in our commemoration. We can’t leave out anyone.
And that ought to make us pause, when we also remember the divisive arguments running through our society about immigration, race, and culture, about human sexuality, about different lifestyle choices, and about values and aspirations. It ought to make us pause, especially when we think that even within the community of the Church, where surely all ought to feel welcome and loved, these same divisions run more or less openly. When we look at the symbols of loss and sacrifice that will feature again on Remembrance Sunday, we should remind ourselves that the people we remember were not just projections of our younger selves or idealised figures from a rose-tinted Downton Abbey-esque past, but real human beings who reflected pretty well all the varieties and possibilities of the human condition.
And that reflection is only reinforced by the thought that we can push the circle even further. We will not only commemorate combatants on 11 November. Over 500 British citizens were killed and another 1300 injured in German ‘zeppelin’ raids on British towns and cities. They included, naturally, women as well as men, the young as well as the elderly. Thousands of civilians died as a result of the conflict between German and British colonial forces in Africa. Thousands more died in the sinking of allied ships by German u-boats.
Of course we could go even wider still, and include the dead of all nations. As Christians we should and will remember them too. But even if, perhaps inevitably, the focus of national and local memorials here in Britain will be on the British dead of the war, still, it only takes a moment’s thought about the communities touched by grief in 1918 to realise the sheer breadth and variety of humanity.
I’m not suggesting that that simply relativises serious differences over ethics; but it does perhaps humanise them.
And it reminds us – and I think we always need reminding of this – that they were all part of one national community, as they were part of one human community, and that no one we commemorate was somehow ‘less’ than someone else, whatever their background, race, nationality, orientation, and identity.
Photograph – poppies in Walsham le Willows from East Anglian Daily Times