1919: END OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR; BEGINNING OF THE SECOND? A Sermon at the Remembrance Day Services in Fordingbridge.

Preached by Canon Gary Philbrick on November 10th, 2019.

Matt 5:1-12

1919 – One hundred years ago.

1919 was the year that the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28th – we commemorated the occasion in the Memorial Gardens on June 28th this year when a plaque was unveiled commemorating all of those who died, and all of those who suffered, in the First World War.

The Treaty of Versailles formally brought the First World War to its end, imposed harsh requirements on Germany, and has been seen by many as France’s revenge on Germany for its defeat in the Franco-German War of 1870. 

It’s also been seen as paving the way for the Second World War – but more about that in a few moments.

1919, one hundred years ago, was also the year that Siegfried Sassoon wrote his poem Aftermath – copied to the bottom of this sermon, with its question, ‘Have you forgotten yet?’  And his reason for asking that question, ‘For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days, Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways’. 

‘Have you forgotten yet?’  Well, the answer is, ‘No!  We haven’t forgotten yet’.  One hundred years on, ‘At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, We will [still] remember them’.

In the second verse, Sassoon asks, ‘Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz – The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?’

We have a link with Mametz here in this Church.  William Robert Hewitt, who died in the Battle of Mametz, is commemorated on a plaque on the wall by the North Door.  William Hewitt was a Gunner in the Royal Field Artillery, ‘the largest arm of the artillery, responsible for the medium calibre guns and howitzers deployed close to the front line [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Field_Artillery].  He was a Gunner, the artillery equivalent of a Private, and he was just 19 when he died.

Mametz was part of the Battle of the Somme, in France, which took place in Western France from July to November 1916.  Over a million men were injured or killed in this terrible Battle.  We do still remember Mametz.

Siegfried Sassoon ends his poem of 1919, ‘Have you forgotten yet?…  Look up, and swear by the slain of the war that you’ll never forget!’

1919 – One hundred years ago.  The signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and the writing of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, Aftermath.

November 11th, 1919 one hundred years ago tomorrow, was also the first occasion of the keeping of the Two Minutes’ Silence.

It was in the Spring of 1919 that Edward Honey, an Australian soldier and journalist, working in London at the time, wrote a letter to the London Evening News suggesting a period of silence to mark the signing of the Armistice which marked the end of the First World War on November 11th, 1918 – ‘The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’ – and in November 1919, George V proclaimed that there should be the Two Minutes’ Silence – and it has been used at this time every year since then – nearly 100 years.

The Manchester Guardian reflected the next day: ‘The first stroke of 11 produced a magical effect.  The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses…stopped also… Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also… Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of attention… An elderly woman wiped her eyes… everyone stood very still.  The Hush deepened.  It had spread over the whole city… It was… a silence which was almost a pain… and the spirit of memory brooded over it all’ [SCF, Festival Brochure, 2018, p. 35] [Pause].

1919 – One hundred years ago.  The signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the writing of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, Aftermath, and the first keeping of the Two Minutes’ Silence.

But just move on in your minds twenty years, if you can – to 1939, when on the 1st of September, after many years of build-up, the Second World War began – just twenty years after the end of the First.  If you’re young, twenty years may seem like for ever.  If you’re older, twenty years is like the blink of an eye.

It’s impossible for me to imagine how awful it must have been for that whole generation, all of whom would have been affected by the First World War, to be going to War again.  And there are many ways in which the Second World War can been seen as a continuation of the First.

As we remember all of those who suffered through and died in both World Wars, and in many other conflicts, we should be grateful that, despite all of the problems Europe has had during the past seventy-five years, we have had three-quarters of a century of relative peace in Europe – probably longer than at any other time in recorded history.

And we do remember the past, we haven’t ‘forgotten yet’, but we remember so that we can look to the future.  Towards the end of this Service, Mike will lead us in an Act of Commitment.  We’ll be asked three questions: ‘Will you strive for all that makes for peace?’  ‘Will you seek to heal the wounds of war?’  ‘Will you work for a just future for all humanity?’

They’re quite big questions, and they might seem a bit remote from some of us.  How can we make them real?  Two thoughts as we look for an answer: firstly, the reading from Matthew’s Gospel which the Mayor read for us earlier.  These sayings of Jesus are called the Beatitudes [Matt 5:1-12].  ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the merciful’, and ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’.  The Beatitudes are Jesus’ summary of a way of living which connects us to other people, and which draws us towards God, the maker of us all.  They’re about how we live our everyday lives – are we living simply for ourselves, or are we living, as Jesus did, in service of others?

And, secondly, in answer to those three questions, we can only start where we are, and with the resources we have.  Someone once said, ‘If you want to eat a mountain, you have to do it one spoonful at a time’.  If we want to change the world, we have to do it one step at a time.  We start where we are.  Can we be agents of peace and healing and justice in our everyday lives?  And if we can change something locally, can we also begin to change something globally?  The answers are ‘Yes’, we can make a difference locally and globally, and honour the memory of the past by shaping the future in positive ways.

30 years ago, on November 90th 1989, ordinary people showed they could make a difference by doing something which had seemed impossible just a few weeks earlier – climbing over the Berlin Wall, and starting a process which led to the reunification of Germany.  We have the power to make a difference by breaking down the barriers we find between people.

Sassoon’s poem ends, ‘Have you forgotten yet?…  Look up, and swear by the slain of the war that you’ll never forget!’

We haven’t forgotten, we won’t forget, and we commit ourselves to work for a just and peaceful future, so that all of God’s people may live in freedom, and with peace.  Amen.

Aftermath (1919)

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same—and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack—
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads—those ashen-gray
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the slain of the war that you’ll never forget!

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