Sermon: Sunday 9 November 2014
The Revd Canon David Jennings, Canon Theologian
After the Second World War, Armistice Day, which referred specifically to the First World War, was replaced by Remembrance Sunday, the day we acknowledge and celebrate today, as we remember and call to mind not only those who died and suffered in the two World Wars of the 20th century, but also those who have died and been injured in subsequent conflicts throughout the world. But exactly what and who is it that we are remembering? Clearly, it includes deceased members of the armed forces, the injured and the bereaved. There were also many others for whom war was a time of severe deprivation and suffering, many of them civilians, children and the elderly, whose lives were blighted, and for some continue to be blighted by conflict. There is also the question as to the form of our remembrance, which must go beyond just a two minutes silence and the commemorations associated with today. Our desire and commitment to peace, and the avoidance and eradication of conflict should necessarily be a part of what we feel and proclaim today, not least in honour of those who saw the offering of their lives as a necessary evil to secure a better and more humane world. There is also the need to engage emotionally with the consequences of conflict, death and injury so that in remembering we feel the revulsion of violence and war.
I have visited many First World War graves in Flanders. I have also visited many Second World War graves in Normandy. One cannot help but be emotionally moved, not only by the maintained beauty of the cemeteries, but also the vast number of graves, the inscriptions on the headstones, often the young age of the deceased, and the all too many acknowledgements of ‘known unto God’. It takes little imagination to appreciate the consequence and the event that might lead to such a designation rather than a name. When I took two of my grandsons to the Ranville Cemetery, near the infamous Pegasus Bridge, I pointed out that many of the deceased were not much older than themselves. I also took them to Omaha Beach. It was a beautiful day; it was a beautiful beach with lovely holiday homes and children playing. It was hard to correlate this reality with the horror on that beach represented by Steven Spielberg’s dramatic portrayal of the D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan. The opening 20 minutes are hard to watch as the carnage was vividly portrayed, and which Normandy veterans say was accurate of what happened on that day on that beach on that day.
The recent BBC series The Passing Bells shows two young men, Tommy and Mickey, one British and one German, joining up to go and fight in the First World War, against the wishes of their families, and having to then cope with the horrors of trench warfare with the intent of killing each other (which they did literally in the final episode), but who in any other situation were so alike. The irony of war sits alongside the attendant death and horror of war. Our remembrance today should try to imagine what such must have been like for those so directly affected. This was true also for 19 year old Private Jack Corteil. Jack served with 9th Parachute Battalion, 6th Airborne Division in the Second World War. He was the handler of the Paradog called Glen. Both jumped together on 6th June 1944 with orders to destroy the German gun emplacement known as the Merville Battery, near the port of Ouistram. I have been there with my grandsons on many Brittany Ferry trips to the port. Jack and Glen reached their designated drop zone but as they made their way to the Battery came under fire. The aircraft that strafed them with anti-personnel mines were RAF Typhoons. The pilot had mistaken the British paras for a German patrol. Jack and Glen were killed on that fateful day, and the Battery was not even sufficient to inflict the anticipated damage to the troops landing on the nearby Sword Beach. At the request of the officer who found their bodies Jack and Glen were buried together at the Ranville Cemetery. Jack’s mother wrote these words on his headstone, ‘Had you known our boy, you would have loved him too. Glen his paratroop dog was killed with him.’
It is important to call to mind these specific realities of war to avoid abstract sentimentalisation, let alone the glorification of war. Our remembrance today should be one of regret at the suffering and loss of life of so many, as we commit ourselves to the peaceful resolutions of differences and difficulties within our shared world. This seems a tall order, but it is something that we owe to those who we are remembering today. Perhaps, I could conclude by drawing attention to another horrific and tragic event in the Second World War, and which is sometimes all too easily forgotten in our commemorations. The recent winner of the Man Booker Prize was the novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Flanagan describes in sickly detail the horrors endured by prisoners of war forced to build the Burma Death Railway. His father was a survivor of the indignities and despicable treatment of the men who built that railway line, and who died on the day Flanagan finished the book. It is a moving story and account of what happened and it makes difficult reading, as it should. Towards the end of the book, Flanagan writes, ‘For the Line was broken, as all lines finally are; it was all for nothing, and of it nothing remained. People kept on longing for meaning and hope, but the annals of the past are a muddy story of chaos only. And of that colossal ruin, boundless and buried, the lone and level jungle stretched far away. Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass.’ We remember and commend to God today all those who have lost their lives in conflict, all those known only unto God, all those Private Corteils who lie in some foreign field, that the young Tommys and Mickeys will not have to confront each other as enemies, all those who were tortured and died brutal deaths at the hands of brutal men, and all those who continue to mourn, including those from more recent wars. But above all, we earnestly pray for peace and reconciliation from the brutal horror of war, knowing that such is the will of God. It is also worth remembering that it is 25 years ago today that the Berlin Wall came down, representing the end of the Cold War and the possibility of a reconciled Europe. Such must be our hope and prayer on this Remembrance Sunday, as it will continue to be long into the future.
© The Revd Canon David Jennings