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Allen Valleys Churches

The Diocese of

Newcastle

Last Sunday’s Sermon

Remembrance Sunday 2018


All around these valleys there are letters. Kept safe, tucked away, in an old briefcase, or a drawer upstairs, or deep inside a trunk in the attic. Fading and fragile, we handle them now and again, but with reverence and care. Some are brief notes, written on the back of black-and-white postcard photographs of the senders; men of the Durham Light Infantry or the Northumberland Fusiliers, or of a dozen other units; looking jaunty despite their slightly ill-fitting uniforms. Some are letters from the trenches, hand-written on YMCA note-paper, by men from these valleys writing home. They went off to the war with such high hopes, further than most of them had ever travelled, to places whose names they could hardly pronounce, believing they would be home by Christmas. They won’t say much about the fighting, these letters. They won’t describe in detail the life of a Tommy in the trenches. They won’t tell of the burials, after the battles. The censor would not have allowed it, even had the writers wanted to. These letters speak much more of home and family, and shared memories of peaceful times, and of hopes and promises for the future, when the war is over.


But kept alongside them, in too many cases, is a bleaker correspondence. The pre-printed letters, sent out by the thousand, arriving here, as they did in every city and town and almost every village in the land. ‘Dear Madam, it is my painful duty to inform you that a report has this day been received from the War Office notifying the death of’ – and then space for the number, rank, name and unit of the soldier who has been killed – ‘which occurred at (insert battlefield) on the (insert date); and I am to express the sympathy and regret of the Army Council. The cause of death was’ – and another blank space is here filled in, carefully, in copperplate hand-writing.


Perhaps also there are the letters of condolence, from friends or distant family, ‘so very sorry to hear of your loss, if there is anything I can do...’.


Perhaps with them there are the longer, hand-written letters, from young men; just out of school, mostly. Second lieutenants, they write to the bereaved families about the men they have lost from their platoons, in a way that shares a little more humanity than the cold officialese of the War Office telegram and the Army Council letter. They tell how the deceased was killed by the concussion from an exploding shell. He would have known nothing about it, and would not have suffered in any way. He was one of the best men in the platoon, who could always be relied upon. He was buried with dignity by his comrades, and his grave was marked with a cross.


Barely out of short trousers, these young officers tried to offer as much comfort as they could to families they had never met; and to spare them the awful, ghastly horror of death in trench warfare. The truth, with which they had to live, of wounded men drowning in mud-filled shell holes, or caught up for days on barbed wire after the failure of an attack; passing on such knowledge would not have brought back the dead, nor comforted the living.


Could we write back? What would we write to our young men, who signed up, and learned to dig trenches and obey orders and fire a Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle? And marched away, believing that they would return to a better, safer world? Could we write to them of the peace that they gave their lives to establish? We’d have to tell them that the war to end all wars did not succeed in that aim at least. Peace had to be fought for yet again, only a generation later. We’d have to explain to them that the struggle to maintain the peace they did achieve has been unremitting, and costly; that it has required a hundred years of constant vigilance.


We might write to ask what it was really like, what they truly felt, as the whistle blew and the bullets flew and the shells exploded, and comrades died beside them. They probably wouldn’t tell us, even now. We would have sad news to break to them, of the sorrow of the family that mourned them; a loss from which some they left behind never recovered. And we would write to thank them, surely, for the horrors that they went through, the hell-on-earth that they endured, the ‘valley of dry bones’ in which they dwelt. And for future they gave up, the life they ultimately gave.


But we would write to them of good things too, I hope. Of the progress we have made in so many areas, and the freedoms and the prosperity we enjoy and now take for granted. Of the hardships and struggles endured, yet overcome in our valleys. Of the changes we have seen, and of the good times there have been, these hundred years past. We could tell them of the children, hearing their stories, growing up, amidst the beauty and relative security of West Northumberland, learning to be part of the strong and flourishing community they fought to preserve.


‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’, says Jesus. When we think of peacemakers, whom do we imagine? The generals, sat in a railway carriage at Compiègne, finally signing the Armistice at 5.00am on the morning of November 11th, 1918? Diplomats and politicians, gathering in Paris to negotiate the peace treaty which formally brought the Great War to an end on June 28th, 1919, or those who established the League of Nations in 1920? All these were peacemakers, it is true.


But, whatever their political views or religious faith, those whom we remember today are peacemakers. In order to help purchase that peace, they paid the highest price. We pray that as children of God, they are indeed now blessed.


We said there were letters, all around these valleys. So, finally, look at the letters, carved in wood and stone, on all our war memorials. Now garlanded with poppies, the names of those who have fallen. Carefully recorded, solemnly read out each year as we remember, and thank God for them and the sacrifice they made. These names are carved as well in stone at Thiepval, and Tyne Cott, and on the Menin Gate. And in Basra, and Alexandria, and on headstones in a dozen other war cemeteries, along the Western Front and beyond. So that were we to write, one hundred years from when the guns fell silent that first Armistice Day, we could thankfully, humbly and truthfully say, ‘we have remembered you. We do remember you. We will remember you.’

The Sermon refers to the following passages from the Bible: Ezekiel chapter 37 and Matthew chapter 5, verses 1 - 12.

© Jon Russell 2018

A Preacher’s Tale:

Explorations in Narrative Preaching

by Jon Russell

Available from SCM Press, priced £16.99

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