Memory: Commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War

This is the sermon preached by Canon Andrew Evans, Team Rector of Bridport at the special service of Commemoration to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War.

How do we remember? I don’t mean the small things in life, our modern world is full of ‘To do lists’ and diaries entries, electronic and paper. Our mobile phones peep and off we rush to the next engagement ever ready and ever busy.

No, how do we remember as a society and a culture those events which are so impactful, which touch our collective and corporate lives to such a degree that they form the basis of our joint consciousness.

What were you doing when you heard of the assassination of President J F Kennedy in 1963 or when you heard the announcement of the death of Princess Diana in 1997? Some here today will be too young to remember those events, but others will remember similar things from much earlier times. Perhaps you can remember the time you first heard an air raid siren or that in 1945 the war was over.

We are gathered together today to remember, to commemorate the beginning of such a cataclysmic event in our nation’s history. It literally changed our nation and our world, unleashing social, political and economic forces with which we still live to this day. A century on, when virtually every participant either military or civilian is dead we have but the history of our history to rely upon.

What we may have read or been taught or watched on TV is the filter by which we have come to understand the complexities of the beginning of the First World War. Even that title, of course, is a product of later events. For those who fought in 1914-1918 it was the ‘War-to-end-all wars’ and the ‘Great War’. When peace came in 1918 who would have expected it was but the beginning of an almost century long era of hot and cold wars which lasted with little break from 1914 until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989?  And because it was just the first rather than last war we have tended to judged it as futile, a waste, a hopeless sacrifice of young blood that solved nothing.

Historian Paul Saunders wrote ‘Human societies receive the traditions of the past from their forebears, but they also take an active part in remoulding them in line with their own preoccupations and challenges’.  During the 1960’s the men who fought in the trenches and elsewhere were ‘Lions led by donkeys’ as the whole structure of political and military command during the war was challenged and found wanting. It was the era of the cynism of ‘Oh what a lovely War!’ in the West End.

The 60’s of course was an era of great social upheaval where old certainties and authority was challenged and changed and the war was viewed through that prism of changing culture as well as when austerity and the social conservatism of the 1950’s gave way to us ‘never having it so good’.

I know of a school visit to the battlefields of the Somme where the children were ‘entertained’ by episodes of Blackadder on the coach. Comedy it is, history it ain’t. A biting satire which reinforces for a new generation that those who died, died for nothing. I saw a tee shirt recently: Archduke found alive, first world war a mistake’.

Saunders again: ‘The importance of an historical event is particularly pronounced in the changing of memory’.

We have a memory of 1914, but it is largely mythology. 1914 was not an especially wonderful summer. June was OK but it rained in July and August was unsettled. Pretty normal really. Crowds did not flock to enthusiastically embrace the news of war. There were some, of course, but the general mood in this country, and in Bridport at the time was a sombre one of alarm.

No one, from King down had thought war remotely possible. Groups in the Church of England were praying for peace right up the moment that the war was declared.

There had been much anti German feeling whipped-up by the Daily Mail, and the naval arms race and erratic behaviour of the Kaiser caused several international crises, but a general war between modern industrial nations was considered too awful to contemplate. Or at least in this country.

The system that had kept the peace since Waterloo a century had held.  The newspapers of the last week of peace pointed toward a deepening crisis in Europe, but the headlines were about the fear of civil war in Ireland.

War, when it came, was greeted with concerns and fears. The regular and territorial army went off very quickly, but in less than six weeks the front page of the Bridport News was given over to strident calls for volunteers and the casualty list inside was growing ever longer.

The British Expeditionary Force sent to France comprised some 120,000 men in August 1914. By the end of November, 87,000 were casualties and that peacetime army was simply no more. By wars end in 1918 Britain and the empire had put over 8 million men in the field and just under a million had become casualties.

No donkeys could affect such massive change in organisation and tactics and although there were terrible, terrible mistakes and loss of life, lessons were learned. The British army of 1918 was unrecognisable to the army of 1914.

This afternoon I reprise an edited version of a sermon given by my predecessor from this pulpit in August 1914. If you can’t make the concert, it is posted on our website.

The ministers of the churches prayed together in the Town Hall and read the Psalm our Mayor read this morning, a psalm which recognises the huge forces which have been unleashed, that the very earth should roar and the mountains shake. It was prophetic. The nations were in uproar and kingdoms not only tottered, they collapsed. Why is there tension in Eastern Europe today? Look at a map for 1914.

Canon Farrer offered a prayer for people to use, printed in the Bridport News and reproduced on the back of our service sheets today. It is a humble and reflective prayer, a prayer that recognises that what is to come will be a mighty trial. And his own son, who is remember in a memorial on the South wall by the door, was to serve for all but twenty days of the war, enlisting eight days in and dying 12 days before its end.

Events now and over the next four years are commemorations not celebrations. We remember those of our town and country; men and women, young and old, who lived and died as a result of the terrible forces unleashed when talking stops and fighting starts. St. Paul reminded the church of Rome, suffering terrible persecutions at the time, that God’s love does not desert in times of crisis and hardship, but rather strengthens. Nothing he says can separate us from that love.

So as we remember the events of August 1914, I challenge you to think for yourself. How do you remember? Think afresh about what it might have been like to be a young man or woman, a mother or father, soldier, sailor or factory worker during those days. What motivates you?   What frightens you? What are your hopes?

Do that and we move beyond the received history and open once more the reality of real people, living real lives in extraordinary times. These people are our forebears and the very least we owe them is the respect of looking beyond cynicism and recovering their dignity, their humanity and their courage.

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