Fr David's Sermon
12th November 2006
‘These poured out the red sweet wine of youth, gave up their years to be of work and joy, and those that would have been their sons, they gave their immortality.’
I’ve often found myself thinking about those lines quoted on the memorial tablet on our West Wall. The memorial is to 2nd Lt. John Richard Gutteridge Smith who died of his wounds at Le Touquet 30th December 1916, aged 26. He lived at Wiggen Hall in this parish.
I’ve always intended to look up those lines. No doubt the more literary amongst you will know their source. With the wonders of Google I quickly traced them to a sonnet by Rupert Brooke called ‘The Dead’ published around the time of Rupert Brooke’s own death in 1915.
Rupert Brooke is a problematic war poet. It used to be said that so and so had had a ‘good war’; they had been brave and survived. Rupert Brooke had no war to speak of He died of blood poisoning on his way to the Dardanelle’s. It originated in an infection he picked up pre war in the South Seas. Rupert Brooke’s few war poems tend to romanticise war rather than reflect its horrors in the way that those who went through the trenches like Wilfred Owen, did. His most famous verse referred to that ‘forgotten corner of a foreign field that is forever England’, romantic but not reflecting the industrial slaughter of the Western Front.
That said those lines from our memorial plaque capture something of the sense of loss, less in the sense of raw immediacy, more from the perspective of years. They haunt us, referring as they do to lost futures.
When I was a boy in the 1960’s the First World War seemed to be about old men, those who like my grandfathers fought and survived. Sepia photographs of young men in uniform made them seem old too. With the passing of the years, with the passing of all but a few surviving veterans form WW1, our historical perspective changes. The First World War was about young men who fought and were killed, who usually had no sons or grandsons to know and remember them. Gilded youths like Rupert Brook, ordinary young men all cut down before theirs lives had begun. I now see in a way that I didn’t quite see before that the First World War was an experience of youth. (e.g.Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth). Rupert Brooke’s lines capture that loss of future, of work and joy, of those who would have been their sons, of immortality.
A few decades ago people used to speculate that the cult of Remembrance would disappear with the surviving veterans of the two world wars. It seems now to be far from the case. The need to remember, if inevitably less personal, seems to be stronger than ever. It is because the terrible losses of the First World War have left a great wound in our national consciousness. The loss of youth, the loss of a generation, the loss of future creativity and life, all this remains with us still. With it goes a loss too of faith and hope.
From a Christian perspective this wound in humanity, all that still present suffering, draws us more deeply into the wounds of God revealed to us in the death of Christ on the Cross. It is not about explanation but is to do with forgiveness, atonement and healing. If war leaves deep wounds in humanity then that woundedness is to be found in the heart of God and with it the possibility of redemption.
The Christian response to past wars is one of profound prayerfulness with its entering into the sufferings of others, with its seeking of forgiveness, with its support for those in need, with its prayer for the dead, with its gratitude for those who gave their all and with its seeking for all that makes for a true and lasting peace. (Contemplation, action and service.)
Memorials, poems, words all aid in the important task of Remembrance.
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