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Remembrance Sunday 2013

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

The Reverend Canon Charles Royden

Remembrance Sunday 2013

I have used for the commentary today a poem by Charlotte Mew. (See commentary at bottom of page)

Not yet will those measureless fields be green again
Where only yesterday the wild sweet blood of wonderful youth was shed;
There is a grave whose earth must hold too long, too deep a stain,
Though for ever over it we may speak as proudly as we may tread.
But here, where the watchers by lonely hearths from the thrust of an
inward sword have more slowly bled,
We shall build the Cenotaph: Victory, winged, with Peace, winged too, at the column’s head.
And over the stairway, at the foot -- oh! here, leave desolate, passionate hands to spread
Violets, roses, and laurel, with the small, sweet, tinkling country things
Speaking so wistfully of other Springs,
From the little gardens of little places where son or sweetheart was born and bred
In splendid sleep, with a thousand brothers
To lovers - to mothers
Here, too, lies he: Under the purple, the green, the red,
It is all young life: it must break some women’s hearts to see
Such a brave, gay coverlet to such a bed!
Only, when all is done and said,
God is not mocked and neither are the dead
For this will stand in our Market-place -
Who’ll sell, who’ll buy?
(Will you or I
Lie each to each with the better grace?)
While looking into every busy whore’s and huckster’s face
As they drive their bargains, is the Face
Of God: and some young, piteous, murdered face.

In my school study of the war poets the exams always tested us on the male poets like Wilfred Owen, but this poem I like, I find it reassuringly depressing and gloomy about war and the outcomes. Perhaps she looked at the military parades and the victory marches and just felt sick in the stomach over the abject futility of it all.

Her words refuse any opportunity to glory in victory, they focus on the depth of suffering which wars cause, bringing violence even upon the face of the earth itself. Only the poppies grew on the scarred battlefields and broken earth of Flanders. Her words reflect upon the ongoing agony and broken hearts of those who are left behind in pain, mourning over the deaths of those sent to fight.

O how we need to contemplate upon these words and bring them to mind and Remembrance Sunday is a day to do this. To remember the dead and remind ourselves that war is just a most dreadful thing.

You would have thought that we would have learned our lesson by now but only weeks ago we heard the rattling of sabres from politicians speaking of military strikes against Syria. It is so easy to be beguiled by the rhetoric of war. Politicians whose lives will never be put at risk must speak carefully of bombing and be all too conscious of the inevitable reprisals and deaths of innocent people.

Military commanders and politicians love to pretend that somehow war can solve problems. I was thinking back to the famous speech by George Bush on 1 May 2003. He stood on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and announced the end of the war in Iraq. Above him was a large banner, which you may remember had the words ‘mission accomplished.’ I think that everybody ran for cover afterwards not wanting to take responsibility for putting it up and agreed that whoever had the idea to put it up - it was really a very bad idea. Wars are seldom ever over that quickly and more importantly there should be no room for triumphalism when we look back on a war and see the unacceptable loss of life which inevitably comes from what must, must, must always be the absolute last resort of using violence.

So today we wear Poppies and we gather for Remembrance Sunday

Poppies were a sign of hope. They were a brilliant visual symbol of the aftermath of the First World War. From the seemingly destroyed earth of the battle conflicts came colour once more. Red poppies growing from the fields of Flanders, soiled with the blood of dead soldiers

We should not forget that they were of course introduced to make money. In 1918, at the end of World War One there was no welfare state as we have today and millions of men had fought for their country and been injured, and yet had little or no support from the government. The families of men injured or killed also had no support and many were plunged into poverty and hardship as a result. After the war, paper poppies were made and sold to the British public. The idea was that injured service men could be employed to make the poppies as a way to earn a living, and the extra money raised would also help other ex-Service men and their families. The poppies would be worn by people around the time of the anniversary of the end of the war as a symbol to remember what had happened and the men who had fought.

These poppies were about people whose lives had been destroyed by war. They were not to celebrate the conflict or somehow consecrate war. Wearing poppies is not about jingoism or congratulating ourselves on success in military conflict. It is about remembering those who have died and recognising their sacrifice for us and for our freedoms. And as we remember their sacrifice we recognise that it is incumbent upon each one of us to strive for peace and do all that we can to ensure that lives are not lost in further wars which are not absolutely necessary.

Before 1919 those who died in service were not remembered unless they were officers, it was only World war 1 and the armistice service which changed that. It introduced the recognition of the importance of every single life lost. I remember listening to our then Archbishop Rowan Williams speaking words of caution about war, stressing that every life lost was important, everybody killed was somebody’s child, or mother or father, not one was unimportant - that was why war was so terrible. Every life mattered and somehow we must remember every human life which has been lost. It is so hard when we continue to hear of those shot and bombed and killed every week on our news.

If I am honest I regret that we no longer repatriate our fallen soldiers at Royal Wootton Bassett. The respectful display by the residents and the solemn passage of the funeral always captured on television was a fitting national recognition and a reminder of the ultimate price paid by our armed forces engaged in ongoing conflict. 345 service personnel passed through the town over four years, before the repatriations were moved to RAF Brize Norton.

These poppies, these symbols of hope are only of any significance if we learn the lessons of war. We must remember their lives poured out for the freedom of others. This is the atrocious waste of war, it sucks human life into it - leaving behind ongoing pain for others. The effects of war go on long after the guns have fallen silent.

Remembrance Day is a day of reflection, it allows us to remember or think about all those people who are affected by wars, both in the past and now. It allows us to think about all those people who suffer in wars all around the world. And it reminds us how important it is to work for peace. The poppies remind us not of the war but of the dead. They are about people, people we must never forget and people we must honour by trying to bring about the peace which those who died in war believed they were helping to bring about.

Thoughts on the Poem 'The Cenotaph' by Charlotte Mew

On 11 November this week is Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. At 11 am on 11 November 1918 the Armistice began that was the end of World War One. In 1919, on the first anniversary of the Armistice, a service was held and now each year on the Sunday nearest to 11 November, at 11 o’clock in the morning, a Remembrance service is held at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London. The Cenotaph (which means empty tomb) was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in Portland Stone and unveiled by King George V on 11 November 1920. It replaced the original and identical wood and plaster cenotaph erected in 1919 for the Allied victory parade. The first Cenotaph was covered in wreaths to the dead and those missing in the war. Although it was originally to commemorate the First World War heroes, it is now used to commemorate all British troops who have died in wars.
We are familiar with many poems inspired by war written by men, less so the writings of a woman. The Cenotaph written by Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) was first published in 1919 after the end of the First World War. The poem is about the enormous loss and the ongoing pain of war, about sacrifice and futility and scars.
Reading the poem from the start we are captured by the words
’Not yet will those measureless fields be green again’
War leaves unresolved grief and pain and as the battle fields bear the scars and wounds of war, so has the beautiful colour of the green grass been removed. Wounded minds bore the deep scars of war. Nowadays we understand post traumatic stress, in the First World War men were shot before their pain was understood. When the Cenotaph was built, the suffering of war was fresh in the minds of all concerned, healing would take a long time.

Charlotte Mew writes ‘there is a grave whose earth must hold too, too deep a stain.’
This woman poet speaks profoundly and full of regret concerning the suffering borne by earth itself and inflicted by this terrible great war. Nature too is stained by war, made barren and is ‘too’ a victim. The heart and minds of those who lived through the conflict would not quickly or easily recover, she understands that the damage is so extensive that is has affected even earth.

The poignant line ‘an inward sword have more slowly bled’ recalls to mind the words spoken to Mary by the prophet Simeon who told the mother of Jesus that ‘a sword shall pierce your own soul too.’ Jesus was pierced with a spear drawing blood from his side, his mother must surely have suffered that ‘inward sword’ as she watched the death of her beloved son. Those who waited back home by ‘lonely hearths’ knew the slow death of hope which pierced their inner being as loved ones spilled their blood on the fields of France.

And so ‘We shall build the Cenotaph’ shows the country coming together in an act of solidarity. Wreaths and flowers are brought in an outpouring of national grief and respect, ‘Violets, roses and laurel, with the small, sweet, twinkling country things’
This reminds me of the mountain of spontaneous floral tributes left in London following the death of Princess Diana. The horror and destructive images of war contrasted with the flowers which nature produces when peace prevails. Young brave, gay lives are laid to rest on a bed made with the covering of ‘purple, green and red’ flowers, the colours symbolic of the vitality of their spent youth .

However Charlotte Mew is prophetic and makes no mistake that this war has somehow healed humanity of the urge to kill. Note the strange length of the lines of the poem, some short others long. The usual and often trite poetic patterns are forsaken for irregular lines, lacking conformity, perhaps mocking the uniform or military discipline of war. There is a sense that all is not well, no public ceremony will straighten out the crooked legacy of war or the twisted nature of humanity.
Then she brings in God, ‘God is not mocked and neither are the dead.’ Therein lies the wastefulness of war for nothing has changed to justify broken ‘women’s hearts’. Life continues as before with ‘whore’s and hucksters.’ Young lives have been murdered and God is together with them, there on the last line. The Cenotaph today is inscribed with the words ‘The Glorious Dead.’ Charlotte Mew uses the words ‘young, piteous, murdered face.’ She is not disrespectful of the soldiers, but has clear anger towards how they have suffered, there is no glory in the waste of their lives which have been taken from them.

Charlotte Mew seems brutally aware of the horrors of war, no soothing to be found in the passing flags and marching bands. Life must have been extraordinarily difficult for one refusing to draw comfort from pretence. She took her own life in 1928 by drinking Lysol, a cleaning disinfectant. Sadly of course she was correct in expressing the futility of war in this powerful poem. The Great War, never was ‘the war to end wars’, the Cenotaph is inscribed in Roman numerals with not one but two dates 1939 & 1945. We should never be under any illusion that war solves problems or that it is anything other than the last resort. Charles Royden