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Sermon Preached at Sherborne Abbey, 27 July 2014

by Gerry Lynch last modified 28 Jul, 2014 12:54 PM

A sermon preached at the a Solemn Commemoration of the Centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, Sherborne Abbey, 27 July 2014

Text: Joel 2 vv 1 – 3, 12 - 13

How to commemorate the centenary of the First World War is so difficult a question that the Government set up a Committee, which included the Dean of Salisbury.  They have created a framework which has encouraged every parish church to be open on Monday 4th August for reflection and prayer, these County Solemn Commemorations, and the national services in Glasgow next Sunday and at Westminster Abbey tomorrow week. Our cathedral has asked to receive all the names on First World War memorials in the Diocese.

The tiny village of Powerstock is one of many to use this anniversary to research their war memorial. They have produced a marvellous book: A Dorset Parish Remembers 1914-1919.  In 1914 prayers were asked for those from the parish who had gone, “to serve our King and Country by Land and Sea and Air”.  On Powerstock’s Roll of Honour 92 names are listed as well as the 11 on the War Memorial who did not return.  As we heard in Mr Wilson’s introduction to the service, over 4,000 of the Dorsets were killed, 350 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Only 4 who died from Powerstock served in the Dorsets. The men who died rom Powerstock also served in the Royal Navy, the Hampshires, and the Royal Artillery and they died in Jutland, Gallipoli, the Persian Gulf, Siberia, Egypt and Poona as well as in France and Flanders.  If this was the first world War, it was also the first war for over a century to involve the whole country. In Dorset, the only Thankful Village to have all her sons returned was Langton Herring.

So the first reason to commemorate the start of the First World War is, “Lest we forget”.  War is a terrible thing and a failure of human society. Perhaps that is why “the terrible Day of the Lord”, depicted in our lesson from Joel, is compared to an army leaving devastation.  The manufacture of weapons and the development of aircraft added greatly to the capacity to inflict heavy casualties in the Great War. Remembering the dead from our own communities opens our sensibilities to the horrors of war in much the same way as happened to the country then. In 1914 HG Wells wrote that “It will be over by Christmas” but Kitchener’s appeal on 7th August offered a service of ‘three years or until  the war is concluded’.

So for David Lloyd George “The war to end all war” became “This war, like the next war, is the war to end war”. It defined the start of a century in which the class system changed decisively, the roles of women and men became more equal, we became global, and more people died in war than in all the previous centuries combined.

The biggest lessons in life are often learned when we have got ourselves into the greatest difficulties. The most important lesson of war is that the threshold for going to war must be very high because the cost is so great: “Lest we forget” – for our own sakes and for the people of Gaza, Mosul, Syria, the Ukraine, South Sudan, Central Africa and all the other places of conflict in our world. The choir’s singing of Psalm 122 was poignant: “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem” for in its peace lies the world’s peace.

In the same way that we often find the best of ourselves in response to life’s greatest difficulties, war calls forth the best of human qualities. The Rev Edward Noel Mellish VC MC is commemorated In Weymouth cemetery.  He won the VC for most conspicuous bravery. 

“During heavy fighting on three consecutive days, he repeatedly went backwards and forwards under continuous and heavy shell and machine-gun fire between our original trenches and those captured from the enemy, in order to tend and rescue wounded men. He brought in ten badly wounded men on the first day on ground swept by machine-gun fire and three were killed while he was dressing their wounds. The battalion to which he was attached was relieved on the second day but he went back and brought in twelve more wounded men.  On the night of the third day he took charge of a party of volunteers and once more returned to the trenches to rescue the remaining wounded.   This splendid work was quite voluntary on his part and outside the scope of ordinary duties.

The experience of the First World War, and especially its poets, makes us cautious of glib language but there is at least some reality to the language of sacrifice and the use of the text in relation to some who died that, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  For some this was in a Christ-like way but I used to be the chaplain to the VCGC Association and was struck by their unwillingness to talk like this. The repeated phrase used about those who have shown conspicuous valour and gallantry is that wonderfully understated citation that what they did was “at no small risk to themselves”. They would say of themselves, “It’s what you do for your mates”.  These are ‘the salt of the earth’.

The County Museum in Dorchester currently has a wonderful exhibition about ‘A Dorset Woman at War’. Mabel Stobart was a supporter of women’s suffrage who thought women would achieve the vote only if they could demonstrate their ability to aid in the national defence. She founded the Women's Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps to serve near the field of battle, first in the Balkans  in 1912 and then in  Belgium in 1914.  Back in the Balkans at the age of 53 when German and Austrian troops invaded, Mabel Stobart and her team of women doctors and nurses retreated over the mountains of Montenegro to the safety on the Adriatic coast. It was a journey of 800-miles in which over 100,000 soldiers and civilian refugees died of hunger, disease and the cold. Stobart and her remaining nurses continued to care for them as best they could and her heroism is still remembered in Serbia today.

What of the Germans? They, too, believed God was on their side. In Fordington Cemetery there is a war memorial to 45 Germans prisoners of war.  In ‘Dorchester Remembers the Great War’, Brian Bates tells of the first of their funerals which set the pattern for the rest. The service in the prison camp was led by the Rev. Stratton Holmes, minister of the local Congregational Church, who spoke German and was accepted by the mainly Lutheran prisoners. It took place early, at 6.30am. For the first funeral, crowds turned out and two policemen led the procession through the town to clear the way. A firing party preceded the Prison Guard brass band, then came the coffin on a gun carriage drawn by horses, followed by a contingent of about 50 prisoners, accompanied by members of the prison guard, and an open carriage full of wreaths. One Fordington woman was quoted in the Dorset County Chronicle of 2 September 1915: ‘I only hope that in Germany they treat our men as well and pay as much respect to those who die’. It was an example of the Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.

We should not be surprised it is difficult to know how to commemorate the First World War. The country struggled with its commemoration in the aftermath: the war graves for those unknown to man but known unto God, the tomb of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey, the Cenotaph in Whitehall and the war memorials in every parish each told part of the story which is marked today.

On Armistice Day in November 1925 a fancy dress ball was planned to take place in the Albert Hall as a tribute to the Great Deliverance of the First World War. A few weeks before, in October, Dick Sheppard, the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, wrote to The Times declaring this, "not so much irreligious as indecent". He received strong support. Nevertheless, the dining tables and chairs were actually being laid out before he succeeded in having the ball cancelled and a Service of Remembrance substituted. The King, Queen and Prime Minister accepted invitations to attend. Sheppard promised that the same amount of money or more would go to the charity which would have benefited from the ball. He printed the service sheets and led the congregation of 4,000 in a service that became the basis of the annual Service of Remembrance. Dick later wrote on the cover of his service sheet, "Of course Pacifism must be written into this". 

When Edith Cavell’s statue was erected in St Martin’s Place, it took Sheppard four years to have added Edith Cavell’s own words, “Patriotism is not enough” which she, of course, continued, “I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone” in keeping with our Lord’s command to love our enemy.

This importance for us of this Solemn Commemoration is both to remember those who gave their lives and “Lest we forget” the cost of war, the value of each individual and what we have learned from experience of the best of values and human dignity. From this most difficult experience we still have much to learn. 

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