In 5 days’ time, 100 years ago, the guns were finally silenced on one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
It was not, of course, the end of the war. But by the end of what we know as the battle of the Somme, more than 1 million men were wounded and 300000 were killed. There were, on the first day alone, 57470 casualties, making it the worst day in the history of the British army.
Since then another battle has raged: the argument about whether that sort of loss of life was necessary. Field Marshall Douglas Haig has been in turn praised (it is estimated that more people turned out for his funeral than did for the funeral of Princess Diana), ignored, damned and it is only now that that judgement is again being reassessed.
But today is not the day for asking whether what was asked of the men at the Somme was right or wrong, wicked idiocy or an evil necessity.
Today is the day when we remember the astonishing sacrifices that were made by those who served – then, in more recent conflicts and those who serve now.
It is a time to remember and it is time to say thank you.
Millions of men, young and old, heard the call from their country. We remember the Kitchener poster, ‘Your country needs you’. And they signed up. Perhaps the first few thought that they were signing up for a quick victory and glory. But as the war dragged on, as news came back from the front of nightmarish trenches, gas attacks and mass casualties, people knew that this was going to be no picnic.
I’ve read a couple of books which are basically the letters of two men who served at the front. The first are the letters of a man called Sydney Baxter (his real name was Reginald Davis). He enlisted in the London Territorial Regiment. He survived but was seriously injured in the battle of the Somme, losing his eye and having part of his brain blown out.
He was a clerk and he writes of hearing the call:
‘It was well into October (1914) before I realised the Call to Arms was a personal one .. The treatment of the Belgians hit me very hard, and, but for my home circumstances, I should have donned khaki straight away. My position was just this. My father had died some few months before, and left to my care my mother and my sister. Their protection was my solemn charge – there was no doubt about it in my mind. And yet, what was my duty? To fight – or to stay and look after our little home? It is a problem that thousands of us young men have had to wrestle with, and for several days I wrestled with it alone’.
There was real sacrifice demanded of so many when they heard the call to enlist. Many, like Sydney, will have wrestled with their sense of duty. Some will have struggled with their conscience – and we need to recognise that those who refused to serve on the grounds of conscientious objection also paid a very high price.
The second are the letters of a man called Harold Chapin. He was an actor and playwright, married to Calypo with a small boy, called Vally. He served with the 6th London Field Ambulance. He never returned home.
He writes of what it cost him to go to war. In November 1914, he writes to his wife, “Heaps of love to you both and everybody. Explain to my boy that I must be away from him for a while. Willson and I went to the Abbey last night and there was a dear little choir boy just like Vally with such a sweet childish little voice. I nearly howled. God bless you sweetheart - keep smiling.”
And he describes some of the awful things that they had to go through.
In May 1915 he writes, “I gave a hand with my party of six and between us we carried down two: you have no idea of the physical fatigue entailed in carrying a twelve-stone wounded man a thousand odd yards across muddy fields. Oh this cruel mud! Back in " ----- " we hate it (the poor fellows come in absolutely clayed up), but out here, it is infernal.”
“The whole front just now is one Hell of mud and weariness, such as I never conceived possible, and heroic medical officers sorting the dead from the living and struggling, struggling, struggling, against chaos. There isn't a regimental medical officer upon this sector who doesn't deserve to live in comfort at the country's expense for the rest of his life (V.C.'s be damned).”
In July, Harold writes,
“I can't tell you how I long to sit in a room again - a room with a door that will shut out people. Most of the "horrors of war" are entertainments just a shade - or a lot - too exciting or painful to appreciate till they are over; but the absolute lack of privacy for hours, days, weeks, months, accumulating and piling one on another is a source of real misery, far exceeding the physical discomforts of sleeping under an overcoat on a waterproof sheet on a stone floor or going without an occasional meal or night's sleep.”
And on Sunday 26 September 1915, in the Battle of Loos, in which many Suffolks died, Harold went over the trenches to recover casualties. He was shot in the foot, appears to have carried on, and was then shot in the head.
Two simple stories out of the countless stories of the men and women who we remember; men and women who heard the call of their country and answered that call.
And they served the first world war, in the second world way, in many subsequent conflicts. And they serve today.
We remember today those who have heard the call and were prepared to serve their country even if it meant that they would suffer dreadfully and die.
We honour them, and we say thank you.
But it is not just they who made the sacrifice. There is also the sacrifice that their families made. The sacrifice of wives like Calypo, who give up their husbands; Children like Vally who gave up their fathers; Mothers and sisters who gave up their sons and brothers.
And I think today of the families who give up the ones they love into the armed forces.
For them it can be hard, particularly when those they love are deployed. They don’t have the excitement and the adventure. All they have is the waiting and the praying and the fear.
And I do ask those of you who serve to not forget the sacrifice of your families.
And to the rest of us: yes, support and honour those who fight for their country – but also recognise and support their families; particularly those who have given up sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers – and who have lost them.
We think of those sacrifices and we say thank you.
Paul writes in our reading today, ‘Finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things’ (Philippians 4.8)
It is important for us to think about such things.
We must never forget it when others make sacrifices on our behalf.
We must not take it for granted and assume that it is our right.
We must not forget to say thank you.
When we say thank you we become bigger people.
It means that I have noticed what another person has done.
It means that I have taken myself out of myself and put myself in their shoes; I recognise that what they have done has cost them.
And I begin to realise that what I have is not what I deserve but is a gift.
Saying thank you at any level is so important.
It affects our marriages, our work places. They can be divided into thank you places and thank not places – places where you are appreciated or places where you are taken for granted.
It affects our whole attitude to life.
Denzel Washington, at a speech to church leaders, said, “Give thanks for blessings every day. Every day. Embrace gratitude. Encourage others. It is impossible to be grateful and hateful at the same time. I pray that you put your slippers way under your bed at night, so that when you wake in the morning you have to start on your knees to find them. And while you're down there, say "thank you." A bad attitude is like a flat tire. Until you change it, you're not going anywhere."
Please do not be people who take others for granted, especially when they have made such big sacrifices for us.
Please do not be people who – for that matter – take God for granted.
We remember sacrifice today. And we say thank you.
Every time you walk into this church you walk in under the symbol of supreme sacrifice. It is the image of Jesus Christ on the cross. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, loved us so much that he left heaven and came to this earth to die. It wasn’t just that he died for us. It wasn’t just that he went through agony and shame for us. It was that he chose to go through the mud of hell for you. He died and he rose from the dead. And he says, “If you follow me, if you live for me and if you die for me, you may face agony and shame and you will die. But I will be with you. I will come and live in you. I will never leave you. And I will take you through death to life – so that you can be with me for ever”.
And all we need to do is to say ‘Thank you’.
One of the things that surprised me in these two sets of letters was how much God and prayer gets a look in. I genuinely was not looking for it. But maybe, when you face living in hell, there is no other place to turn.
So Harold writes 4 months before he dies to his grandmother (by the way, grandparents, don’t underestimate your significance in passing on the faith)
“Of course I have no objection to your teaching Vallie a prayer. Why should I have? Only please teach him one thing: that his prayer may not be answered and that if it isn't, he must not think that God is cruel or unmindful. "Thy will be done" is the safety valve in all prayer and a believer in God must surely think - if they do not say - those words as a part of every prayer. In the case of a child I think they should be said. If I don't come home you may - I mean: Please will you - teach him the Sermon on the Mount and "The Lord is my Shepherd" etc., but I have always looked forward to teaching him these myself and still hope to do so - this coming winter too.”
And when Sydney Baxter’s close friend George is killed in battle, he receives a letter from George’s stepfather.
“We did not know how constantly and continually we could petition the Great Father till you lads went away. We will not cease because one needs them no more. Rather we will be more constant, and perhaps that may be one of the results of this war. Think what a power the prayers of a whole world would have with God! If only they were for the one thing—that His Kingdom would come, it would be accomplished at once! May the knowledge of His all-pervading love dwell more and more in the hearts of the people of the world, so that wars and all kindred evils may cease and the hearts of the people be taken up with the one task of living for God and His Kingdom.”
So thank you Father for sending Jesus.
And thank you Jesus for giving your life for us.
Thank you for the purpose and the peace and you give us and for your presence with us.
And thank you to those of you here for the service that you have given and you do give your country.
And thank you to the ones who are not here. We will remember them.