On 'the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month' of 1918 the 'Armistice of Compiègne' was signed, and with it the carnage of the First World War came to an end. Over 800,000 British soldiers died: if we include all the military and civilian casualties, then maybe there were around 40 million deaths – it was one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history.
Ever since the end of that 'war to end all wars' we as a nation have remembered every November all those who served, died and were affected by the war both at home and overseas. Traditionally the main act of remembrance has taken place on Remembrance Sunday, always the second Sunday of November. However, in recent years, even though there are no combatants left, Remembrance Day, marking the actual anniversary of the signing, has gained in importance – with two minutes silence being observed in many places.
This year Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday fall on the same day. What is more, there will be added solemnity, for November 11, 2018, marks one hundred years since hostilities ceased at the end of the Great War. Along with the National Service of Remembrance at London's Cenotaph which will include a march-past of some 10,000 veterans, church bells will ring out as they did at the end of the First World War. In addition, of course, in every church and at many a war memorial there will be special acts of remembrance, most of which will follow the Two Minutes Silence with a recitation of Laurence Binyon's poem for For the Fallen.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Although the rights and wrongs of that war remain a matter of controversy, I have no doubt that we are right to remember before God the enormous sacrifices made by so many in the service of their country. I shall, for instance, remember my grandfather who died not in action, but as a result of a military accident back in England; I shall also remember my father's step-father who never really recovered from being gassed in the trenches. I will remember too how whenever he combed his hair, little pieces of shrapnel fell out as a result of his having fought on the beaches of Gallipoli.
But let us be clear. Although many a war memorial has the words 'To our glorious dead', the truth is that there is nothing glorious about war. Rather war is about pain, misery and hate. In the words of GA Studdert Kennedy ('Woodbine Willie'), probably the best-known chaplain to the forces in the First World War:
Waste of Muscle, waste of Brain,
Waste of Patience, waste of Pain,
Waste of Manhood, waste of Health,
Waste of Beauty, waste of Wealth,
Waste of Blood, and waste of Tears,
Waste of Youth's most precious years,
Waste of ways the Saints have trod,
Waste of Glory, waste of God – War!
Of course, war is not the only evil. There's hunger and disease, poverty and ignorance. But how much more could be done to alleviate these but for the crippling cost of war past, present and to come – every year billions are spent on armaments.
As the former soldier and US President, Dwight Eisenhower, said: 'Every gun that is fired, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.' He went on: 'The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.'
On this Remembrance Sunday we shall not only look back with thanksgiving, but we shall also remember those who still suffer as a result of war. We will pray for the injured and the disabled, for the mentally distressed, and for all those whose faith in God and in others has been weakened or destroyed. We will pray for the homeless and the refugees, for those who have lost their livelihood and security. We will pray for those who have lost loved ones – and especially for those who have no hope in Christ to sustain them in their grief.
We will also bring before God the many conflicts that still bedevil our world, and pray for the ending of hatred and distrust, and the restoration of peace and justice. How we long for the day when the Lord 'will settle disputes among the nations, among the great powers near and far. They will hammer their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning knives. Nations will never again go to war, never prepare for battle again. Everyone will live in peace among their own vineyards and fig trees, and no one will make them afraid' (see Micah 4.3-4 GNB; also Isaiah 2.4). In a world of so much pain many are tempted to despair: but with God there is hope. One day his kingdom will indeed come!
This article was first published on Church Matters and is reproduced with permission.